As coronavirus cases spread in Myanmar this month, viral posts about a mysterious “zombie deer virus” spread on Facebook, claiming the animals would attack humans and “suck blood.”
Needless to say, none of it is true, and the idea appears to have been inspired or confused with plot elements from the hit Korean zombie movie “Train to Busan.” But the posts received so much attention that an international fact-checking service took the time to debunk them, running the claims past an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Facebook is the most widely viewed social media platform in Myanmar, where smartphone use has exploded over the past eight years as the country opened up to the outside world with economic and political reforms. But it is rife with misinformation, fake news and hate speech that has fueled violence offline.
Posts about the alleged zombie deers said “experts have expressed concern” over a pathogen that could be “scarier” than the coronavirus. “[The zombie deer] virus is very similar to the virus in zombies seen in movies, who lose their minds and suck human blood,” one translated post said.
The top grossing 2016 Korean film “Train to Busan” opened with a shot of a deer that seemingly turned into a zombie after being hit by truck following a biotech factory leak. The image of the “deer zombie” used in one of the Myanmar posts was a smudgy screenshot from the Korean movie.
The Southeast Asian country has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems after decades under military rule. Myanmar has also threatened to arrest people who disseminate false information about the coronavirus, which is challenging its thinly stretched hospitals and medical staff.
A screenshot of one of the viral "deer zombie" Facebook posts in Myanmar
As of Nov. 26, authorities recorded a total of more than 85,000 confirmed cases and nearly 2,000 deaths as the commercial capital Yangon scrambled to build isolation centers to contain the virus. The city was under strict lockdown orders that prevented anyone but non-essential workers from moving freely around the city, restrictions that included the media.
Agence France-Presse, which operates a global fact-checking service, called the deer zombie posts “misleading” in a blog post. It quoted CDC expert Ryan Maddox who said the posts could be discussing chronic wasting disease (CWD), an illness that affects deer among other similar animals such as elk and moose. But it is known to be an animal sickness.
“For more than 20 years, CDC and its health partners have been monitoring for the possibility of human cases of CWD… to date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people,” Maddox told AFP.