Death stokes 'mad elk' disease fear; officials skeptical

September 6, 2002 Associated Press by Paul Elias
SAN FRANCISCO - Montana elk hunter Gary Padgham died of the brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in Monterey last month, setting off fearful speculation that bad meat may have been the cause.

Conclusive results are still weeks away, pending completion of an autopsy at the University of California, San Francisco. Health officials said the autopsy is taking so long because they want to make certain what they overwhelmingly believe: Padgham's death has nothing to do with eating elk infected with a disease closely related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease.

There are two types of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. One form strikes one in a million people for no apparent reason. The other, more infamous variant, is caused by eating bad meat, a case of which has never been reported in the United States.

Nonetheless, Padgham's death has become a sensitive subject among his family, friends and hunters. Chronic wasting disease has infected deer and elk in 10 Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, including Montana.

Scientists insist there's no evidence that eating infected elk and deer will kill people. Still, Padgham's death has added to existing fears of human health consequences.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with two state health agencies, are investigating the deaths of three hunting buddies from Minnesota and Wisconsin who died from brain diseases. Two of the hunters died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and the third of Pick's disease. All three ate wild game.

The World Health Organization warns against eating infected elk and deer, and health officials move quickly to kill animals found infected with the chronic wasting disease.

Since 1995, 133 Europeans, mostly from the United Kingdom, have contracted Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease after they ate beef infected by mad cow disease. The outbreak continues to incite public fear overseas and has wrecked the British meat industry.

U.S. officials have banned all shipments of British beef into this country since 1989.

None of the more than 442 Creutzfeldt-Jakob deaths in the United States since 1997 has been linked to mad cow disease. That's a big reason why health officials believe Padgham's death has nothing to do with tainted meat.

Another factor is Padgham's age. Those dying because of bad meat had a median age of 28, according to the CDC. Those dying of the nonmeat variant had a median age of 68. Padgham was 50.

Further, only one captive Montana elk herd and no wild animals have been found to be infected with chronic wasting disease, said state epidemiologist Todd Damrow. But Montana, California and CDC health officials are all awaiting the outcome of the UCSF examination before making a definitive statement.

"Until then, everything is speculation," Damrow said.

Padgham was a fishing guide in Bozeman, Mont., who hunted and occasionally ate wild game, just like 75 percent of the men in the state.

In October, a shaking and stumbling Padgham first began showing signs of Creutzfeldt-Jakob. He initially was diagnosed with Huntington's disease. By July, he had lost most of his motor skills and doctors in Seattle finally made a proper diagnosis.

He moved to the Monterey Convalescent Hospital to be closer to his family. He died Aug. 25.

UCSF is examining Padgham because it is the pre-eminent Creutzfeldt-Jakob research center in the country, conducting up to two dozen autopsies of victims of the disease each year. The school's Stanley Prusiner won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for discovering prions, the abnormally shaped proteins found in Creutzfeldt-Jakob victims.

The disease can lay dormant in victims for many years, but becomes fast moving once it is active. The disease opens fatal holes in the brains of victims, who lose their motor skills and become delusional.

UCSF spokeswoman Jennifer O'Brien said school researchers have no reason to believe they are examining a meat-related case of the disease. Citing confidentiality restrictions, she declined to discuss Padgham's case in detail.

In a brief interview on Aug. 30, Padgham's daughter, Britta Padgham, said the family also was awaiting the UCSF results before making any conclusions.

"We just don't know yet," she said.

Commentary from John Stauber

September 9, 2002 Letter emailed to Paul Elias regarding his article (above)


You makes an erroneous assumption: that if CWD were killing people their brains would look exactly like the human victims of mad cow disease, nvCJD.

No one knows exactly what CWD would look like in humans, but it would probably resemble sporadic or classic CJD.

These hunters aren't hunting British cow.! BSE and CWD are completely different strains of TSE. (I'm not surprised you are confused -- the CDC has mislead reporters on this point.)

From 1993 to March 20, 1996, Britain was reporting unusual CJD deaths in young people; then, they realized it was mad cow disease in humans and we call it nvCJD. If CWD is moving into people, it will NOT be nvCJD, but will require its own name.

Also, check out It was started by a disgruntled deer hunter, and does a good job of collecting articles and the latest developments.

John Stauber co-author, Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?

PS: Let me know if you'd like a copy. Sheldon Rampton and I wrote it 5 years ago but its still current. The updated paperback is coming out in January. -- John Stauber, Executive Director Center for Media & Democracy 520 University Avenue #310, Madison, WI 53703 Phone(608)260-9713 Fax260-9714

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