U.S. to study deer disease risk to humans

November 5, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Mark Johnson and John Fauber

With chronic wasting disease crossing the Mississippi River this year into Wisconsin and now Illinois, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has commissioned two studies to assess any human health risk posed by the disease.

The money to be spent learning about chronic wasting disease -- part of the $29.2 million proposed for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for fiscal 2003 -- underscores the disease's transformation from a once-obscure deer and elk illness confined to sparsely populated western states to a pressing human health concern.

"Our hunters and our families must know whether CWD is a threat to our food supply and our way of life in Wisconsin," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said Monday.

As part of the effort, the federal government will spend about $500,000 to study whether chronic wasting disease can jump from deer to other species, including humans, Thompson said. That study will examine what is known about the disease and measure the potential human exposure to the infectious agent through venison and other deer and elk products, such as the dietary supplement velvet antler. The research, to be overseen by the FDA, will be conducted in part by the Harvard Medical School, Thompson said. The National Institutes of Health also will be involved.

"This is no longer an isolated animal disease in just certain parts of the country," said Murray Lumpkin, principal associate commissioner for the FDA in Rockville, Md. "As it has spread farther and farther, the potential exposure of people goes up. . . . We need to find out as much as possible" about chronic wasting disease.

Chronic wasting disease is part of a family of fatal brain disorders than can affect animals and people. The diseases, which also include mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in people, are believed to be caused by an unusual infectious agent known as a prion.

Although no known cases of chronic wasting disease jumping to people have been found, laboratory research suggests that it is theoretically possible. However, several researchers say they believe any risk to humans probably is low.

The second major study announced by Thompson involved the injection of chronic wasting disease into so-called humanized mice, mice that produce the human prion protein. This study will span three years and take place at the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

In Monday's announcement, Thompson's office also mentioned the recent awarding of a seven-year, $8.4 million contract to Colorado State University to establish a research center focused on chronic wasting disease.

The center, headed by Colorado State pathology professor Edward Hoover, will look at how the disease spreads from deer to deer and also will examine the possibility of developing a vaccine.

In an interview Monday, Hoover said that vaccine research is still in the early developmental stage. Until recently, researchers believed that the immune systems of humans and animals did not respond to prions.

But Hoover said some of his work has suggested this idea should be re-examined.

"It's very revolutionary, this idea that a vaccine might be possible," he said.

If the vaccine effort succeeds, he said, it could have applications for Creutzfeldt-Jakob and other prion diseases.

Sixth farm quarantined

In the meantime, state officials announced Monday that a sixth game farm has been quarantined.

The 240-acre farm of Robert Konopacky Jr. near Plover in Portage County was quarantined last week after it was learned that he had purchased four white-tailed deer from Buckhorn Flats Game Farm in Almond. A deer on the Buckhorn Flats farm tested positive for chronic wasting disease in September.

No positive animals have been found on Konopacky's farm, which has about 40 elk and 215 white-tailed deer. The quarantine means that no live animals may move off the farm until state investigators do their work.

Konopacky said the four deer have been isolated since he received them from Buckhorn Flats.

"I think the chances of (my farm) having chronic wasting disease are really remote," he said.

Konopacky said his deer are raised for captive hunts and for breeding purposes. The elk are raised for meat.

Konopacky's farm was quarantined as part of state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection investigation into the emergence of the disease on Wisconsin game farms.

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