chronic wasting disease deer, deer zombie virus
A fatal neurological disease that turns deer into zombies could spread to humans, health experts are warning.

The sickness, called chronic wasting disease, affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose and causes the animals to dramatically lose weight and walk in repetitive patterns. Other symptoms include loss of fear of humans, stumbling and listlessness.

As of Jan. 24 states in the United States - including New York - have reported CWD in free-ranging deer, elk and moose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CWD hasn't yet been reported in humans but experts from the University of Minnesota stressed at a hearing Thursday that the disease should be treated as a public health issue, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

"It is probable that human cases of CWD associated with the consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead," Michael Osterholm, the director for the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease and Research Prevention, told lawmakers. "It is possible that number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events."

Osterholm is among experts who've researched mad cow disease and its transmission to humans - which was first discovered in 1996 as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

He compared CWD with the mad cow disease phenomenon, noting that for some time, experts didn't believe it could spread to people.

Minnesota is experiencing its largest CWD outbreak in deer to date in the southeast part of the state.

Scientists believe CWD is passed on through proteins, called prions, in body fluids, like feces, saliva, blood or urine. CWD prions can remain in the environment for a long time - meaning other animals are at risk even after an infected elk or deer has died.

CWD has been on a slow uptick in the United States after it was first identified in captive deer in 1967 in Colorado and wild deer in 1981. By the 1990s, the disease cropped up in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming and, a decade later, spread to states in the Midwest, Southwest and some parts of the East Coast, including Oneida County in New York.

There is no vaccine or treatment for CWD, which is fatal to animals. Symptoms can take up to a year to develop.

The CDC advises against eating meat from infected animals. Past studies have shown non-human primates, like monkeys, can be affected by CWD from eating meat or coming into contact with brain or body fluids of an infected animal.