Deer disease is 'a nasty problem'

April 8, 2002 Capital Times (Madison, WI) by Rob Zaleski
From his laboratory in tiny Hamilton, Mont. (pop. 3,700), Byron Caughey has been closely monitoring the spread of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin's white-tailed deer population.

And, frankly, he says, it's making him nervous.

A senior investigator for the National Institutes of Health, the 44-year-old Caughey lived in Madison in the early 1980s while earning his Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. ("A fun time," he recalls with a chuckle, even though he lived in a "cockroach-infested little room on Beld Street.")

So he's familiar with the Mount Horeb area, where state wildlife officials have so far found 10 deer with the fatal brain ailment. And he's aware of the widespread implications if the disease - a cousin of the notorious mad cow disease in Great Britain - isn't somehow contained.

"It's a nasty problem," he acknowledged in a phone interview. "Regardless of whether there's overt evidence of CWD going into humans, its presence can have all kinds of ramifications. I mean, they've spent tremendous amounts of money trying to stem the spread of this disease in Saskatchewan. They destroyed 7,000 elk last year."

And most troubling of all, he says, nobody really knows what we're dealing with yet.

Imagine, for instance, if it turns out CWD can be transmitted to cattle, he says.

"The economic consequences alone would be staggering."

Of course, it's the potential human link that has everyone on pins and needles. And nobody recognizes that more than Caughey, who caused a stir at a medical conference in Miami two years ago with his report on test tube experiments he conducted using prions from CWD-infected deer and normal prions from humans, sheep and cattle.

The New York Times reported that the tests showed it's possible that CWD could be transmitted to humans. Caughey says the tests "opened the door to that possibility," but they also showed there's "a rather significant barrier at the molecular level between CWD-infected animals and humans."

He also says that he's still "a little peeved" at the newspaper for "overstating the case" and "inflaming a lot of people."

Having said all that, Caughey says that until more is known about the disease, he certainly wouldn't consume any meat from deer that have been killed in the special hunt area that the Department of Natural Resources has set up near Mount Horeb - or any other CWD area, for that matter.

"The risk may be small," he says, "but it's not a risk I'd want to take."

Asked what other steps he thought the DNR should be taking, Caughey says he can't answer that because his bosses at the NIH "don't want us to complicate the lives of policymakers in other parts of the government - you know, shooting from the hip about things that we don't know much about."

Nonetheless, he says it's crucial that hunters who insist on eating the meat of deer they kill educate themselves about CWD and take proper precautions. Foremost, they should wear rubber gloves while field dressing the carcass; thoroughly wash their hands and instruments after the field dressing is completed; and avoid consuming the brain, eyes, tonsils, spleen, spinal cord and lymph nodes of the animal.

"If they focus on the red meat, they can dramatically reduce the risks," he says.

Caughey says he can appreciate why many Wisconsin residents are outraged about the situation and argue that state officials should have acted sooner. At the same time, "it's pretty difficult to make decisions without much information," he says.

As for his own reaction, Caughey acknowledges that he and other researchers find themselves in an awkward spot right now. "I'm certainly not hysterical about it," he says, "but I'm definitely concerned because this isn't something that's just going to disappear."

Again, there's never been a documented case of CWD jumping to humans, he emphasizes.

"But we have to remain open to the possibility that it could."

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