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Animals affected with chronic wasting disease have a zombielike stare and are so gaunt that their rib cages are exposed, according to ABC 13.

SALT LAKE CITY — A disease known as the “zombie deer” disease has been reported in 24 states, including Utah, according to the CDC.

Now experts are saying that humans may be at risk of contracting it.

The illness, which is called chronic wasting disease (CWD), was reported in free ranging deer, elk and/or moose in 24 states last month, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, as well as two provinces in Canada. Chronic wasting disease has also been found in farmed deer and elk.

In Utah, the disease has been reported in Carbon, Daggett, Grand, San Juan, Sanpete, Uintah and Utah counties, according to the CDC.

Animals affected with the disease have a zombie-like stare and are so gaunt that their rib cages are exposed, hence the "zombie deer" nickname, according to ABC 13.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resourcessaid the disease affects the nervous system of animals and causes brain lesions, emaciation, excessive saliva and eventual death.

Scientists believe CWD likely spread between animals through body fluids, such as feces, saliva, blood or urine. Once introduced into an area, the disease can spread quickly among animal populations, and the risk can remain for a long time in the environment, according to ABC 13.

Because the disease spreads via protein molecules called prions, which is how mad cow disease spread from cows to humans, scientists believe humans are at risk of infection, according to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, joined a team of experts at the Minnesota Capitol last week to urge lawmakers to treat chronic wasting as a public health issue.

“It is probable that human cases of CWD associated with the consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead. It is possible that number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events,” Osterholm told lawmakers.

The CDC recommends the public not consume meat from chronic wasting disease-infected animals.

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According to the Utah DWR, “Hunters should not harvest animals that appear sick, nor should they eat meat from suspect animals.”

Officials add that individuals who spot sick animals in the wild should contact their local DWR office.

When hunting, the DWR recommends:

  • Wearing rubber or latex gloves when dressing big game
  • Boning out the meat of all deer
  • Avoiding eating the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleens and lymph nodes of harvested animals
  • Minimizing the handling of soft tissues and fluids
  • Washing hands well and cutting meat on disinfected surfaces.