The CWD-human link: Is there one?

September 22, 2002 Green Bay News-Chronicle by Michelle Kennedy
Earlier this month at a chronic wasting disease symposium in Denver, a National Institutes of Health scientist said that further research was needed to determine if deer, elk, cattle or even humans could be carriers of chronic wasting disease, possibly harboring the illness and infecting others.

"One might wonder if there are people who are carriers," said Richard Race, a researcher on CWD and other neurological diseases.

Experiments Race has conducted on rodents have shown that some diseases in the family of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies could be undetectable in some animals, yet have fatal consequences when that animal encounters another.

"If these people are subclinical carriers, do they represent a hazard to other people?" he asked.

Medical experts at the conference discussed the recently discovered cases in Wisconsin, in which three hunters in their 50s and 60s who often engaged in "venison feasts" all died in the 1990s of neurological diseases, two of them from Creutzfelt-Jakob disease. Creutzfelt-Jakob is similar to wasting disease and mad-cow disease.

The cases have only now come to the attention of the federal Centers for Disease Control. The CDC's interest was fueled by the February discovery by Wisconsin wildlife officials of CWD in the state's white-tailed deer herd.

"You can speculate, but there is no hard data to tell you if they had exposure to (CWD-contaminated venison) in Wisconsin," he said.

"One of these (men) died in 1993. If he was exposed in Wisconsin, you have to look back 10 to 20 years" at the meat he consumed. The meat - if meat even had anything to do with it - could have come from many other places," said Dr. Ermias Belay, a medical epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's a horrible disease," Belay said. "For a family member to watch them die, it's horrible. We are trying to find out all that we can."

The greatest concern was expressed by Western Slope veterinarian Dick Steele. He fretted that CWD is a human health threat that isn't being taken seriously enough by wildlife officials.

He said if the disease does adapt to cross into humans, and proves as infectious as CWD is among elk and deer, there would be "some pretty serious consequences."

He also noted that, compared with British exposure to mad cow disease - where more than 120 people have died out of a population 60 million - exposure to CWD is far lower, perhaps too low for any human cases to be detected yet.

"Human exposure to CWD has been so limited that statistically we are unlikely to have seen one single case at this time," Steele wrote in a summary of his presentation. "To say there is no evidence that CWD cannot transmit to people is quite premature."

In Great Britain, about 60 people per year die from mad cow disease, a variant form of Creutzfelt-Jakob linked to eating meat from infected cows.

Only one person in the United States has this disease, Belay said, and she lived and ate meat in Great Britain for most of her life before moving to Florida. She is still alive.

Although doctors don't want to scare hunters, some said it would be irresponsible to eat elk or deer meet.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, however, is not only encouraging hunters to go out and hunt, but it is encouraging food pantries to accept deer, despite the presence of chronic wasting disease in some animals.

In a recent news release, DNR officials urged food pantry representatives to contact their county Land Conservation Department to be placed on a list to receive venison.

"There seems to be a lot of interest in hunters who want to hunt to take an extra deer but they want to have an extra outlet for it," said Laurie Fike, wildlife damage and abatement claims program specialist. Last year, 4,000 deer were provided for hungry Wisconsin residents in this way.

While some meat processors in the core disease area in south-central Wisconsin have dropped out of the program, numerous processors have signed up to help elsewhere in the state.

"It's necessary to have a huge network of volunteers, church groups, social agencies, USDA-Wildlife Services staff, county land conservation departments and sports clubs" to provide the venison," she said.

Local meat processors, like Mueller's Meat Market on Universtiy Avenue, will continue to process deer despite fear surrounding the disease. In an average season, Mueller's facility processes between 700-900 deer. While he anticipates the number of hunters to drop slightly this year, "between 10 and 30 percent," he expects to process more deer this year.

"We already have upwards of 30 new customers, both people who previously dressed their own meat and whose old processor won't do deer this season," Mueller said.

Lee Dudek, chairman of Green Bay's Hunt for the Hungry, a program that encourages hunters to donate excess game to local food pantries, is optimistic that hunters will keep hunting and that is confident that there is no link between wasting disease and Creutzfelt-Jakob.

"We are in our eighth season of accepting donated wild game," Dudek said. "I see no change in policy from previous years. We are looking forward to a good year."

Dudek is "confident, based on the scientific evidence that exists" that no deer in this area are affected with CWD.

"The hype and scare tactics have not affected needy families' desire to accept donated wild game," Dudek said. "People need to base their decisions on knowledge, not emotions. Dig deep. There's no evidence of a link between CWD and CJD. If there were any evidence of cross-species transmission, Hunt for the Hungry would be cancelled.

Greg Matthews, a spokesman for the DNR, said that most of the 30 counties participating in the "Hunt for the Hungry" program are in the northern and northeast part of the state. In south-central and southwestern Wisconsin, those counties participating are Grant, Crawford, Richland and Dodge.

Regarding the safety of the venison, Matthews pointed out that the DNR has been spot testing around the state for CWD since 1999, and the only deer found to have the disease were in the Dane-Iowa-Sauk county area.

"To our knowledge, no human being has died of chronic wasting disease," he said.

John Hogan contributed to this report.

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