Mad Deer Nightmare

April 8, 2002 Capital Times (Madison, WI) by John Stauber
Five years ago when Sheldon Rampton and I were finishing our book "Mad Cow USA," we learned that chronic wasting disease, a mad cow-type illness found in U.S. deer and elk, was infecting growing numbers of animals in the West, both in the wild and on deer and elk farms.

Since little effective action was taken, I was not surprised to hear that chronic wasting disease has spread to wild deer in Wisconsin, probably through the import of infected deer and elk. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection knew way back in 1998 that animals from infected Western herds were being imported into Wisconsin, but did nothing except set up an advisory committee stacked with the owners of deer and elk farms.

"Mad deer disease" spreads inexorably but invisibly and we might not know for years or decades whether it is spreading into cows or people as has happened in Britain with British mad cow disease. While this possibility is being downplayed to encourage deer hunting and to prevent public concern, there is evidence that chronic wasting disease could spread to humans, including a published peer reviewed scientific study and the unusual deaths of young hunters in Oklahoma and Utah from sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a similar ailment. After a decade of denial, the British government was forced to admit in 1996 that young people were dying of an incurable dementia that is indeed mad cow disease in humans. Today the death toll is more than 100 and rising, doubling every three years. Because these types of diseases have an invisible latency period that can last decades in humans, the British death toll is predicted to rise as high as 100,000 in the decades ahead as people die from contaminated beef they ate in the 1980s.

Chronic wasting disease is predicted to keep spreading and decimate the Wisconsin deer herd within a few decades. It is an invisible disease, and deer or elk can be infected at an extremely young age, even as fawns, yet show no outward signs of infection. There is currently no easy and dependable live test that can detect the disease; killing an animal and then examining its brain is the only sure way of discovering if an animal is infected. Cooking does not destroy chronic wasting disease. The World Health Organization says that no part of any infected animal should be consumed by people or other animals, so having a deer tested before consumption and avoiding sausage made from untested deer is advised.

The best evidence indicates that chronic wasting disease is being spread across North America, effectively seeded into new states and provinces, by trafficking in farmed deer and elk that appear healthy but are infectious. From deer and elk farms the disease escapes into wild populations. Wisconsin needs to institute an immediate mandatory halt to all trafficking in farmed deer and elk in or out of our state until a reliable and simple live animal test is developed.

All deer and elk farm animals in Wisconsin should be quarantined behind secure fences. They should be used for disease research and study, and unless each individual animal is tested and certified free of chronic wasting disease, should not be used for human or animal consumption, nor rendered.

Dealing effectively with the national impact of chronic wasting disease and other similar diseases in U.S. livestock will cost billions of dollars in the decades ahead, yet no one at the federal level is taking charge.

* Perhaps the unfolding crisis in Wisconsin will stimulate federal action, but we can't wait for that to happen. Unfortunately, the recent new law and other steps taken by the state are severely inadequate. Unless rapid and strong measures are adopted and enforced, beginning with a trafficking moratorium and quarantine on deer and elk farms, a terrible situation will only get worse.

EDITOR-NOTE: John Stauber is the executive director of the Madison-based Center for Media & Democracy. "Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?" is available free on the Web as a download at [IMO the best work ever written on the subject--BSE coordinator]

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