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Activist says elk disease poses a risk

October 15, 2001 Capital Times (Madison, WI) by Rob Zaleski
The last thing Americans need right now, John Stauber agrees, is another crisis.

Nonetheless, the Madison activist suggests we should all be paying close attention to the chronic wasting disease epidemic now occurring among deer and elk in Colorado, because it could have widespread implications for all of us.

Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is a cousin of so-called mad cow disease -- the baffling brain-destroying illness that infected millions of cattle in Great Britain in the '80s. More than 90 people who developed a human form of mad cow disease, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, also died, apparently after eating infected beef. CWD was first discovered in Colorado in the '60s. By the late '90s it had spread to thousands of deer and elk in northeastern Colorado and a small part of Wyoming.

Last week, nervous Colorado wildlife officials disclosed that the disease recently was found in game farms on the western slope of the Rockies. About 1,300 elk on those farms are to be slaughtered in the next few weeks.

And while the disease has yet to be found here, Wisconsin is one of several states whose game farms are known to have imported deer and elk from infected farms in Colorado. (Infected animals often don't show symptoms for up to 18 months.)

Stauber, executive director of the Center for Media & Democracy and co-author of a 1997 book, "Mad Cow U.S.A.," has long argued that drastic measures must be taken to halt the spread of CWD, especially since it's now believed that animals can spread the disease merely by physical contact.

Instead, he says, Colorado officials have essentially "played down the risks, attacked people who raise concerns as alarmists and tried to assure the public that there's no proof that this disease can move into people. Well, unfortunately, there's no proof that it can't."

In fact, three young hunters have died in recent years after developing mad cow-like symptoms. However, scientists who examined brain tissue from the three concluded earlier this year that they died of regular CJD, which randomly strikes one per million people and whose cause is unknown.

Stauber, for what it's worth, believes the scientists' logic was flawed. He also maintains that the decision by Colorado officials to slaughter 1,300 elk is "basically an admission" that the disease is out of control.

"This is a problem that needs to be treated at least as seriously as the threat of a terrorist attack involving anthrax," he says. "And I'm serious about that. The anthrax situation is a serious hypothetical risk. And it's getting a lot of attention now.

"But we can look at what one strain of this disease has done to Great Britain and the international market for beef. We need to learn from that tragedy and take the necessary precautionary steps. But we're not."

What sort of precautionary steps?

Stauber believes Wisconsin should ban the import of out-of-state animals by game farms here -- at least until scientists develop a test for detecting the disease in live animals. (At the moment, it can only be diagnosed by examining the brains of dead animals.)

And Stauber isn't the only one who feels this way.

As reported in the local weekly Isthmus last year, Department of Natural Resources official Steven Miller recommended in a 1998 memo to George Meyer, former agency secretary, and other state officials that the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection impose a moratorium on the importation of game farm animals.

But DATCP, obviously wary of the potential economic impacts of a moratorium, took a less controversial step. It asked owners of game farms that have animals from CWD-infected areas to voluntarily take part in a surveillance program. Meanwhile, the DNR now tests about 600 road- and hunter-killed deer a year -- a sampling that Stauber claims is "totally inadequate."

"Essentially, they're handling the situation by hoping to hell that it's never found here and that they can dodge a bullet and that no one pays too much attention to the issue," he says.

Well, call him an alarmist, Stauber says, "but I think we're watching a horrible train wreck in slow motion. And our bureaucrats are either sitting on their hands or passing the peanuts."


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