The Deer Hunters The Target: Chronic Wasting Disease, a Silent Invader Chronic Wasting Disease Facts Hunters In Nebraska Should Know

The Deer Hunters The Target:
Chronic Wasting Disease, a Silent Invader Chronic Wasting Disease Facts Hunters In Nebraska Should Know

June 10, 2001, Omaha World-Herald by Todd Cooper

The beginning of Doug McEwen's end seemed harmless enough.

On one of his sales trips, the 29-year-old father forgot to make his 8:30 p.m. call to the two daughters he adored. On another trip, the too-tough-to-cry 230-pounder broke down because he didn't hear firsthand about his younger brother's church mission trip. On a trip to the supermarket, he spaced out in the checkout line, eventually asking his 7-year-old to help him fill out a check.

McEwen initially blamed his absentmindedness on his constant business travel. But he was on a journey of a far different kind. His simple gaffes, it turned out, were the first signs he was losing his mind.

A couple of months and more than 300 tests later, doctors diagnosed McEwen with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a terminal illness that literally eats away at the brain.

Four months after the diagnosis and three days after the McEwens' wedding anniversary, Doug died. He weighed 120 pounds.

"He looked like he had been through a concentration camp," said his wife, Tracie McEwen of Syracuse, Utah.

Two years later, Tracie's memory of her husband's disease, his painful decline and his death is clear.

What isn't so clear is how Doug McEwen got the disease. Tracie believes he got it by eating venison infected with chronic wasting disease, a disease that occurs in deer and elk and is similar to CJD.

Scientists disagree.

A Food and Drug Administration panel reviewed McEwen's case - along with that of two other victims of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - and found no evidence of a link between their disease and chronic wasting disease, or CWD. But the agency emphasized that questions remain and that scientists must continue to look for a possible connection between the diseases.

Now, Nebraska has been thrust into the international effort to find out more about this frightening family of diseases. The diseases - including Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans, chronic wasting in deer, scrapie in sheep and mad cow - create spongy holes in brains and always result in death.

In November, a hunter killed a deer in Kimball County, Neb., that later tested positive for chronic wasting disease. In response, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission killed about 100 deer in extreme western Nebraska to determine the prevalence of the disease.

There is good reason for an all-out attack on CWD. If left unchecked, it could spread and decimate deer populations, the way mad cow disease has devastated cattle operations in England.

So far, new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of the disease acquired by eating mad-cow-infected beef, is the only brain-eating disease proven to have jumped from animals to humans. Nearly 100 Europeans, primarily in Great Britain, have died from new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob. But because mad cow passed to humans and exacts a horrific death on them, scientists are scrutinizing CWD and the other diseases.

Those affected by the diseases - whether widows or wildlife officials, veterinarians or doctors - are asking the same questions: What price does CWD exact on deer, cattle, the hunting industry and the states trying to control it?

And could CWD ever jump to humans?

Medical Mystery

Every night for six months after her husband's death, Tracie McEwen would descend to her basement.

She would slip into her husband's oversized pajamas, splash on his cologne and listen to his Pink Floyd compact discs. Immersed in his clothes and scent and music, she would try to smother memories of his groans, his mood swings, his incapacitation. And she would search for answers.

"If a person in Great Britain could eat beef and get sick from that," she said, "why can't a person who eats (infected) deer or elk get sick from that? I don't think it's that big of a jump."

Scientists say there appears to be a sizable leap.

The FDA, with help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, studied the deaths of McEwen and two other people, both in their 20s, who had eaten venison and later died from CJD.

The agencies ruled out a connection based on two key factors: The three victims each had unique strains of the disease, indicating the disease probably wasn't caused by a common source such as deer meat; and none of the victims had eaten venison from the parts of Wyoming or Colorado known to have infected deer.

The closest McEwen had hunted was a mountain range in southwest Wyoming, at least 200 miles from the infected area of the state.

"Our investigation found no strong evidence for a link between CWD and CJD in the three cases," said Dr. Ermias Belay, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control. "But continued surveillance remains very critical to monitor the possible transmission of chronic wasting disease to humans."

Indeed, doctors aren't disregarding any theory.

Dr. Pierluigi Gambetti, the nation's leading researcher of CJD, said scientists must continue to search for a possible connection. And doctors must continue to ask relatives whether CJD victims had consumed deer meat, he said.

Gambetti, whose center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland receives the brains of most victims of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, plans further research by injecting CWD-infected deer meat into lab rats genetically engineered to possess human proteins.

"We must go out of our way to see whether there is anything that suggests that the disease could be contracted by consuming deer," Gambetti said. "So far, we have zero evidence that it can. But we must look."

Scientists are looking from several angles.

In three separate experiments, Dr. Beth Williams, a University of Wyoming veterinarian and the leading researcher on chronic wasting disease, has placed diseased deer in pens with cattle.

During the 31/2 years of the experiments, no cows have contracted the disease - even though they have been in constant contact with diseased deer. And no cattle have contracted it after being fed diseased brain tissue. The only cattle that have developed CWD had diseased brain injected directly into their brains, which would never happen in nature.

"It's very encouraging," said Williams, the first scientist to classify CWD as a spongiform disease. "It's a 10-year study, so we still have a long ways to go. But so far, they're (the cattle are) alive and healthy and look like they could live for a long, long time."

The Price of CWD

That research is welcome news to Connie Lapaseotes, a Bridgeport, Neb., farmer.

She is a partner in several commercial cattle feedlots and is a Nebraska Game and Parks commissioner.

Lapaseotes said speculation about whether mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases could immigrate from Great Britain have left cattlemen longing for the days when their main worries were weather patterns and livestock prices.

"Now they're talking about CWD. We don't need anything else getting people all bent out of shape."

Nebraska Game and Parks officials decided to move quickly after a deer tested positive in Kimball County, although it was only one deer and it was just across the border from Colorado.

In March and April, more than 30 officers and biologists spread out over five counties - Kimball, Cheyenne, Deuel, Keith and Perkins - on two hunts for mule and white-tailed deer. The mission had several goals, including the preservation and protection of two of the state's larger industries - cattle and big-game hunting.

Cattle is the state's largest agricultural industry, with $ 6.9 billion in sales annually. Big-game hunting makes up a huge part of the state's hunting and fishing industry, worth an estimated $ 500 million.

And deer hunting is one of the Game and Parks Commission's biggest moneymakers, with 91,000 hunters generating $ 3 million in permit fees annually. That's about 20 percent of the agency's budget.

To protect cattle from CWD, officials hope the apparently natural barrier between the two species remains intact. To protect deer, officials hope regular hunts create a figurative barrier at the state line.

"One of our goals is to try to stop it at the border," said Kirk Nelson, assistant director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "It's a difficult goal, but it's something we think we can do."

Out of 104 deer harvested during the two-day hunts, one tested positive for the disease. The deer had been killed 2 1/2 miles from Colorado and two miles from Wyoming.

Colorado and Wyoming officials say the effort to stop the disease at the border just might work. Officials in those states have monitored CWD for more than 20 years, watching it cover a 24,000-square-mile area in northeast Colorado and southeast Wyoming.

In some of that area, one out of seven deer (15 percent) have tested positive. In others, less than 1 percent are infected. In the entire area, biologists estimate an average of 5 percent of deer are infected - hundreds of deer.

Rick Kahn, a Colorado wildlife management supervisor, said Colorado and Wyoming officials envy Nebraska's position. Kahn said he often wishes Colorado could turn back the clock to the early 1980s, when the disease had just started.

Little was done then because little was known about the disease, he said. Now Colorado spends about $ 500,000 a year monitoring CWD - a figure that Nebraska Games and Parks officials say almost certainly would require cuts in the agency's existing programs.

"No state wants this disease," Kahn said. "There's nothing good about it. Nothing."

A few discoveries, however, have been promising.

Experiments suggest that the chronic wasting disease acts more like scrapie than mad cow disease in that a barrier seems to prevent it from passing to other species. In the 260 years since scrapie was discovered, it has killed sheep but has had no proven effect on humans.

The other piece of good news is that chronic wasting disease moves slowly in the wild.

Dr. Mike Miller, a veterinarian with the Colorado Department of Wildlife, calls it "an epidemic in slow motion," lending credence to the idea that Nebraska can keep diseased deer from spreading east along the Platte River basin.

"Nebraska has been extremely aggressive," Kahn said. "I think they've done the exact right thing. If Nebraska does nothing, this thing could get a foothold and eventually spread east."

After Nebraska's initial hunt in March, Colorado officials held their first organized hunt in April. In the next three years, Colorado officials hope to reduce by half the deer population in an area just north of Fort Collins. An estimated 15 percent of deer in that area are infected.

Nebraska officials "didn't force our hand, but they certainly made it easier for us to go up there and try to aggressively deal with the disease," Kahn said. "If we can keep it from expanding, maybe even pinch it in a little bit, we think we can manage it."

'In Perspective'

On a warm spring day, Sidney, Neb., resident Dave Dickey stood in the shadow of Cabela's Outfitters, the state's largest supplier of outdoors equipment.

Dickey, an avid hunter and fisherman, said he has hunted in the same draw where a deer tested positive for the disease in November. The news gave him pause. But he said it won't keep him from hunting.

"There's a little bit of a fear factor because it's so unknown. But my feeling is, this disease didn't just come out of the blue. It may be new to western Nebraska, but Colorado and Wyoming have been dealing with it for a long time. They're kind of in a better position to make that call."

Dr. Tom Thorne considers himself the "longest ongoing experiment" on whether CWD transfers to humans.

Thorne, a wildlife veterinarian in charge of the Wyoming Game and Fish Services Division, has hunted and eaten venison from the infected area for 30 years without getting sick.

Thorne said Nebraska can take heart from Colorado and Wyoming's experience. So far, Wyoming and Colorado have seen no declines for applications for deer- or elk-hunting licenses in the infected areas.

"Everything we know indicates that it doesn't jump from deer and elk to other animals, let alone humans," Thorne said. "But you can't say that it will never transmit to humans. That would be irresponsible. We have years and years of study ahead.

"Still, it needs to be kept in perspective. You're much more likely to get run over by a Winnebago in downtown Omaha."

Searching for a Cure

On the day before Thanksgiving 1998, doctors broke the Creutzfeldt-Jakob diagnosis to Doug McEwen, telling him he had six to eight weeks to live. Then, with her husband still in the room, the doctors asked Tracie if they could have Doug's brain for a study of CJD.

Tracie said she exploded, calling the doctors vultures and blasting them for not doing something to save his life.

Doug interrupted.

"It's OK," he said, his speech garbled but his mind clear. "I'll get a new one up there."

He motioned skyward.

Today, Tracie McEwen said, portions of Doug's brain are being studied in three separate labs.

As she raises their two daughters, now 10 and 5, McEwen has been contacted by everyone from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to animal-rights advocates, from conspiracy theorists to victims' groups.

A former farm girl, she doesn't want agendas. She doesn't want pity. She doesn't want attention.

She just wants answers.

"My hope is that, somehow, some way, they can use Doug's brain to find a way to stop this disease or at least understand it better," she said. "No one should have to suffer like this."

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