2 cases of 'zombie deer disease' have been confirmed in B.C. Here's what you need to know

Chronic wasting disease is fatal to cervids, including white-tailed deer. (Mitchell Kincaid Cook - image credit)
Chronic wasting disease is fatal to cervids, including white-tailed deer. (Mitchell Kincaid Cook - image credit)

The B.C. government says chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been confirmed in two deer, a first for the province.

Nicknamed zombie deer disease, CWD is a fatal and incurable illness that affects cervid, or deer family members, such as moose, caribou and elk, and has been spreading rapidly through Western Canada.

The first case of CWD in Manitoba was first found in a mule deer in late 2021, and then in white-tailed deer for the first time in the same province in 2023.

In May, a provincial survey in Alberta found it was present in 23 per cent of samples collected during the 2022-23 hunting season.

In response, the B.C. government established a surveillance program for the disease in an effort to reduce the risk of spread.

That program has now confirmed the disease has been found in two deer in B.C.'s Kootenays.

What is chronic wasting disease?

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal infection caused by an abnormal protein called a prion.

Prion diseases are a family of rare neurodegenerative disorders that can be found in both humans and animals, impairing brain function.

Perhaps the best known example is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly referred to as mad cow disease.

Where was it found?

To date, chronic wasting disease has primarily been found in deer and elk populations in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and more recently in a wild deer in Manitoba, as well as a farmed red deer in Quebec, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

In B.C., the two positive cases were both found south of Cranbrook, which is about 84 kilometres west of the border with Alberta. The first was from an adult male mule deer, and the second was from an adult female white-tail deer, with the diagnoses confirmed Jan. 31 by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Can it impact humans?

B.C.'s Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship says there is no direct evidence that the disease can spread to humans, nor have there been any instances of it being found in humans.

"However, to prevent any potential risk of transmission or illness, Health Canada and the World Health Organization recommend people not eat meat or other parts of an animal infected with chronic wasting disease," the ministry said in a release.

What comes next?

The release says follow-up work will be done in the region to try and contain the spread, and people living in the Cranbrook region should avoid activities including feeding deer or handling carcasses.

Symptoms of chronic wasting disease include weight loss, drooling, poor co-ordination, stumbling or unexplained sickly behaviour.

How can it be reported?

Anyone who sees an antlered animal with these symptoms is asked to report it to the conservation officer service at 1-877-952-7277.

More information can be found at gov.bc.ca/chronicwastingdisease.