Scientists: Infected meats are on the rise and could eventually lead to real-life ‘zombies’

The ‘zombie’ apocalypse could be right around the corner in the U.S. The Walking Dead could potentially become a real-life epidemic if diseased venison is consumed, according to scientists.

The infectious disease found among deer, elk, and moose, dubbed the “zombie” disease, has afflicted the animals in at least 24 states and three Canadian provinces, as well as other parts of the world like South Korea, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

They’re coming for us

“Zombie” disease — aka chronic wasting disease (CWD) — causes deer and elk to stop eating and behave weirdly. The disease creates microscopic holes in the animal’s brain via prions, an abnormal protein which was found in mad cow disease. In turn, the disease turns the animal’s brains into mush.

An opinion paper published by the American Society of Microbiology warned that while there’s no evidence that chronic wasting disease can cross-species to humans, abnormal prion diseases can take a while to develop and mutate into new forms:

“Available data indicate that the incidence of CWD in cervids is increasing and that the potential exists for transmission to humans and subsequent human disease. Given the long incubation period of prion-associated conditions, improving public health measures now to prevent human exposure to CWD prions and to further understand the potential risk to humans may reduce the likelihood of a BSE-like event in the years to come.”

Experts believe that it could follow a similar path as mad cow disease.

Understanding prions is complicated, as it can thrive for years within soil or animals. The Alliance for Public Wildlife estimates that 7,000 to 15,000 animals are infected by chronic wasting disease. That number could increase by 20% each year, according to the organization.

The chronic wasting disease was first found in a deer at a research facility at Colorado State University in 1967.

New York recently took action against CWD, which was first found the state in 2005. Lawmakers proposed banning bird feeders because it attracts animals from out-of-state that could potentially carry the disease, according to the Times Union.

The paper was written by Michael T. Osterholm and Cory J. Anderson from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Co-authors included Mark D. Zabel, Joni M. Scheftel, Kristine A. Moore, and Brian S. Appleby. It calls for field tests for prions that will be able to find if the disease is live.