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Zombies don’t exist — not even in the animal kingdom

Nume­rous head­lines last month featured the term ‘zombie deer’. What was it actually about?

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been observed in deer and elk since the 1960s, parti­cu­larly in the USA. This prion disease is similar to mad cow disease (BSE) and Creutz­feldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans. Affected animals lose their shyness towards humans, show coor­di­na­tion disor­ders, heavy sali­va­tion and rapid weight loss. These symptoms have led to the media often refer­ring to the affected animals as ‘zombie deer’.

An inci­dent in 2022, published in Neuro­logy in April this year, reig­nited the debate about the possible trans­mis­sion of CWD to humans: a 72-year-old hunter showed rapidly progres­sive confu­sion and aggres­sion after eating meat from infected deer. A friend who had also eaten this meat had died of CJD shortly before. Despite inten­sive treat­ment, the hunter died and post-mortem exami­na­tions confirmed sporadic CJD.

Scien­tists have now commented on the latest death in the USA that although the diagnosis of Creutz­feldt-Jakob disease was confirmed post-mortem, the prion proteins were so similar that CWD could not be ruled out. The German Fried­rich Löffler Insti­tute (FLI) considers the theory that the hunters contracted CWD to be not only unproven, but also rather implau­sible.

So the idea that we are actually threa­tened by zombies (even if only in deer form) is fort­u­na­tely a horror film fantasy induced by head­lines at best. Inci­den­tally, there is a recent publi­ca­tion in Science on the topic of the conse­quences of ‘click­bai­ting’ head­lines in social media:

Allen, Jennifer et al. Quan­ti­fying the impact of misin­for­ma­tion and vaccine-skep­tical content on Face­book. Science vol. 384,6699 (2024) DOI: 10.1126/science.adk3451