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Deer disease link to humans sought

August 6, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by KEVIN MURPHY 
Madison -- Concerned about a possible link between a fatal brain disease and the consumption of venison, Dane County Board members are asking the state to require doctors to report all cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease diagnosed in Wisconsin.

Twenty of Dane County's 37 supervisors are co-sponsoring a resolution seeking to add Creutzfeldt-Jakob to the state's list of reportable diseases. The full board is expected to consider the resolution next month, said Supervisor Brett Hulsey, who also is a vice chairman of the board's Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force. The resolution was proposed after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last month that three men in northern Wisconsin who had dined at annual wild game feasts all died from rare brain diseases. Two of the men died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease; the third died of Pick's disease, which can be confused with Creutzfeldt-Jakob. The chances of getting Creutzfeldt-Jakob are one in a million.

Their deaths raise questions about possible links between chronic wasting disease, a fatal brain disease that has been found in Wisconsin's deer herd, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a similar disease that affects humans. Some of the meat served at the wild game feasts was from elk and deer from Colorado, where chronic wasting disease has been endemic for decades.

So far, there has been no evidence that chronic wasting disease can jump from deer to humans.

"Since it is such a rare disease, but a fatal one, we want to know if hunters can get CJD," Hulsey said. "More study and information can be a step toward determining this."

Earlier this year, the state Division of Public Health urged doctors to report probable cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, especially in patients younger than 55.

Jeffrey Davis, chief medical officer and state epidemiologist for communicable diseases at the Wisconsin Division of Public Health, favors listing Creutzfeldt-Jakob as a reportable disease so that researchers can talk to patients while they're still living.

"We hope that our efforts to enhance surveillance of these conditions will result in many improvements, including the proper diagnosis and adding to our understanding of the public health importance of these conditions," Davis said.

"We're clearly interested, because you can't talk to someone who is deceased. Talking to individuals and their families earlier in the course of the illness is important to us in terms of gathering information about risk effects," Davis said. "It would also allow us to get a lab specimen."

Davis said health care providers have been cooperative about voluntarily reporting the disease to state and national health agencies, but mandatory reporting would sharpen the state's surveillance of the fatal disease.

Hulsey hopes the resolution, if approved by the board, will generate momentum for mandatory reporting of the disease. Dane County will be the first elected body to adopt such a proposal because it is "ground zero for CWD," Hulsey said.

So far, 24 cases of chronic wasting disease have been discovered in Wisconsin deer -- all in Dane and Sauk counties.

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