Zombie disease jeopardises venison production in Northern Europe

By Vladislav Vorotnikov

- Last updated on GMT

The 'zombie disease' causes a number of symptoms including drooling and weight loss
The 'zombie disease' causes a number of symptoms including drooling and weight loss
The chronic wasting disease (CWD), also known as a zombie disease, has been confirmed in Finland for the first time.

The fatal central nervous system disease has already killed thousands of deer in North America and now poses a real threat to Europe’s largest venison-producing countries.

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease got its nickname from the symptoms that make the affected animals act like zombies. These included drastic weight loss, a lack of coordination, drooling, listlessness or a “blank” facial expression, and less fear of people.

“The disease was diagnosed in Kuhmo in a 15-year-old moose that had died naturally,” Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira said in a statement on its website on 8 March.

Live animals export banned

The occurrence of the disease in Finland has already resulted in the first trade restrictions in the country. “As a precautionary measure, the export of live animals of the deer family to other countries will be discontinued for now," said Evira. “At the same time, no restrictions are imposed on the sale and export of venison,” the regulator added.

Until now, Norway was the only European country where CWD had been diagnosed. Monitoring occurrences of the disease has intensified in Finland and five other EU Member States since the start of the year, according to Evira.

“In Norway, CWD was diagnosed in a herd of wild reindeer in 2016. The disease was very similar to the outbreaks in North America. This winter, the entire reindeer herd [in Norway] was killed, hopefully eradicating the disease,” Antti Oksanen, the spokesperson for Evira, told GlobalMeatNews​.

Two forms of disease were confirmed in Norway – one was very similar to the one in North America and the other was found not to be contagious.

“The Finnish moose case is definitely not caused by the North American CWD type. It may be similar to the Norwegian moose type disease, but the prion characterisation and comparison have not yet been made,” Oksanen said.

Farmers keep calm

Anne Ollila, spokeswoman for the Reindeer Herders’ Association of Finland, told GlobalMeatNews​ that Finland reindeer breeders were keeping an eye on the situation with CWD, although the outbreak was confirmed outside the major reindeer herding areas.

“Still, this disease type, now found in Finland, has never been found in reindeer in Nordic countries, and we have already studied a lot of reindeer here. We have learnt that the disease, now found from a moose in south-east Finland, seems to be the type that is not readily contagious and dangerous to people,” said Ollila. 

In general, Finland is producing 2 million kg of venison per year, making it one of the biggest venison producers in Europe, according to the Reindeer Herders’ Association.

The disease is fatal with no cure existing, and since it has a lot in common with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, there are fears that it could be transmitted to humans through eating infected meat. However, there are no reports that a human has ever been infected with CWD as yet.

In general, Ollila said, while the reindeer farmers were monitoring the situation, there was no need to panic. “If a zombie disease in reindeers [in Finland] that is contagious to people exists, we (the reindeer herders) would probably all have turned into zombies already," she added.

Related topics: Safety & Legislation

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