June 8, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) EditorialIf chronic wasting disease ever jumps from deer and elk to humans, what do you suppose the first press conference with Colorado officials will be like? Will state officials face the cameras with the calm assurance that they have given hunters and other game consumers every piece of relevant information regarding the best science on the disease and the potential risk to humans? Or will they squirm before the stampede of reporters, knowing that their own literature and public statements were about to come back to torment them?
We'd say the verdict is still out.
On the one hand, Colorado officials are clearly not in the same state of denial that afflicted their British counterparts in the late 1980s and early '90s, when they flatly denied any possible leap of mad cow disease into the human population. In the past couple of years - particularly since CWD was found this spring among wild deer in Routt County on the Western Slope - Gov. Bill Owens and the state's Division of Wildlife have become much more vocal and comprehensive in their attempts to educate the public about the disease. Yet even so, the state has a way to go. Its literature is increasingly thorough and timely, but it also consistently nudges the reader toward minimizing the possible dangers. Here's an example of what we mean:
On both the Division of Wildlife's Web site and a brochure it distributes to hunters, the state publishes a section titled "Why Are Hunters Advised Not to Eat Certain Parts of Deer and Elk?" It maintains that "Research completed by the Division of Wildlife and other agencies indicate that the prions [the abnormally shaped proteins thought responsible for the disease] accumulate only in certain parts of infected animals - the brain, eyes, spinal cord, lymph nodes, tonsils and spleen. Research also indicates that prions do not accumulate in muscle tissue," which is consumed by humans.
But wait a minute. As the Rocky Mountain News special report, "Killer in the Herds," pointed out last Saturday, recent research is "raising alarms" about whether prions lodge in muscle tissue, too. Scientists have in fact detected high levels of prions in the muscles of laboratory mice infected with transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, the family of diseases that include CWD. As a result, Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner is calling for the testing of muscles in infected deer and elk as well.
It's not as if the state intended to hide this information from anyone. On the same Web site, under its "Chronic Wasting Disease Update," the state does report the findings involving lab mice. It even notes that based on the findings, "the Division is pursuing additional research on elk and deer."
Shouldn't this information be included everywhere that game hunters are presented with the safety facts?
For that matter, is it really prudent to maintain, as the wildlife division does, that epidemiologists "have studied chronic wasting disease and found no link between it and any neurological disease that affects humans" without also telling the public that human cellular components have been infected with CWD in the laboratory? [See here--BSE coordinator]
One more example: Hunters are clearly warned "not to consume meat from animals known to be infected with the disease," and are offered a voluntary state program in which they can submit the head of a harvested deer for CWD testing. But if they're going to make an informed decision about whether to opt for testing, shouldn't hunters also be told that a deer can harbor infectious prions for two or three years without showing outward signs of the disease - that a robust-looking deer can in fact be infected? And shouldn't they know that the test itself won't detect the disease at all for up to six months after infection?
We understand the state's reluctance to sound alarmist, but we also believe that the public deserves a thorough presentation of the facts as people decide whether to eat deer or elk. Someday we may learn that CWD cannot in fact be transmitted to humans, but science has reached no such conclusion now. What scientists have learned, meanwhile, is not entirely reassuring. For example, unlike mad cow disease, CWD is spread from animal to animal in nature, and perhaps through something as simple as nose-to-nose contact.
So imagine if CWD did jump the species barrier into humans, and that the new version of the disease turned out to be as contagious as it is among deer.
We're dealing with something that science at the moment simply doesn't fully understand. Total honesty with the public is the only responsible way to proceed.