Chronic Wasting Disease Detected in Deer at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Deer in Harpers Ferry National Park test positive for 'zombie deer disease,' raising concerns about potential human transmission. Experts warn of the disease's spread across the region.

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Bijay Laxmi
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Chronic Wasting Disease Detected in Deer at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Chronic Wasting Disease Detected in Deer at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Two white-tailed deer inside Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia have tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD), marking the first CWD-positive detection for a national park in the state. CWD is a highly contagious, fatal neurological disease that affects deer, elk, moose, and reindeer species across North America, with no known cure or treatment.

The discovery came during recent deer population reduction efforts and disease sampling conducted by the National Park Service (NPS). The two infected deer were from Jefferson County, West Virginia. While this is the first time CWD has been found in deer at the Harpers Ferry park, the disease has been identified in West Virginia since 2005 and in Virginia since 2009.

CWD causes physiological and behavioral changes in infected animals, including depression, altered gait, head tremors, circling, and eventual starvation and death. These symptoms have led to the disease being unofficially nicknamed "zombie deer disease." The disease is caused by misfolded proteins and can leave animals confused, drooling, and lethargic.

Why this matters: While there have been no reported instances of CWD infecting humans, the World Health Organization advises against the consumption of CWD-infected animals. Experts have warned that the disease presents a danger to humans and have advised governments to prepare for the likelihood of its transmission to people.

Two nearby national parks in Maryland, Antietam and Monocacy national battlefields, also recently saw their first CWD-positive test results. The NPS says there is currently no evidence to suggest that CWD can infect humans, but it recommends that tissue from CWD-infected animals not be eaten. The agency will continue to monitor collected deer for CWD and destroy all venison that has tested positive.

Loudoun County, Virginia, which is part of a CWD management area, tested 1,516 deer during the 2022-23 hunting season and found six positive cases, including three in Loudoun. "Chronic wasting disease has slowly spread across the landscape in Virginia," said Nelson Lafon, Deer Project Coordinator with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

Key Takeaways

  • Two white-tailed deer in Harpers Ferry National Park tested positive for CWD, a fatal neurological disease.
  • CWD has been identified in West Virginia since 2005 and in Virginia since 2009.
  • CWD causes behavioral changes in infected animals, leading to the "zombie deer disease" nickname.
  • While no human infections are reported, WHO advises against consuming CWD-infected animals.
  • Nearby national parks in Maryland also reported their first CWD-positive cases, and Virginia found 6 new cases.