Don't Take CWD Lightly, Widower Warns

October 14, 2002 Capital Times (Madison, WI) by Rob Zaleski

If it were somehow possible, Glenn Riley would just as soon forget that 21 months ago his wife Mary died from the grotesque brain disorder known as sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

But, unfortunately, it's not possible.

It's not possible because every time he picks up a newspaper or turns on the TV, there's always some new development about chronic wasting disease, a prion disease similar to CJD that's infected thousands of elk and deer in this country, including 32 white-tailed deer in Wisconsin.

And it's not possible because the 51-year-old Riley, who lives in New London, still hears from journalists -- last week it was a writer from Milwaukee Magazine -- who want to know more about the circumstances surrounding his wife's death. She was, after all, just 43, and CJD normally strikes people over 60. In fact, Riley -- who, as I noted in a previous column, happens to be my wife's step-brother -- says a day doesn't pass when he doesn't wonder if his wife did, in fact, die of CJD, which strikes about 250 people a year in the United States. Or whether it's possible she contracted CWD from eating tainted deer meat. (Although she wasn't a fan of venison, she did eat it several times during their 25-year marriage, he says.)

Yes, Riley says, he's aware that there's still no evidence of a human contracting CWD. But he notes that in recent years there have been four suspicious cases of CJD in patients under 30 -- three of whom were venison eaters. So who's to say for sure?

Whatever the case, Riley -- who recently sold his tavern in Shawano to help pay off his late wife's hospital bills -- now finds himself consumed by other concerns.

For one, he's troubled by the number of people who are pooh-poohing CWD and the threat it poses. People like Ed Thompson, the Libertarian Party's Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate, who joked about the disease while wolfing down venison brats at a Madison press conference last month.

"I'm just glad I wasn't there," Riley says. "Because that would be something that could make me snap. I mean, I could punch the guy out and think nothing of it. I hate to say that, but it's sort of like he was thumbing his nose at the whole thing."

Riley says he is also disturbed that the state has not taken even stricter measures to control CWD. Particularly since so little is known about how the disease spreads. And he's not the only one who feels that way.

Last week, the Medical Society of Milwaukee County called for tougher regulation of the state's deer processing industry -- including small-time operators who for decades have worked out of their garages and basements.

Riley has one other concern. As a former deer hunter, he knows what a messy process it is to cut up a deer in the field. That being the case, he says he can't imagine why any hunter would even consider using one of the test kits now available to check for CWD -- knowing that they might accidentally come in contact with contaminated tissue.

(Judd Aiken, a CWD specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shares that concern. If hunters follow proper procedures, they should be fine, he says. But if a hunter happened to slice a hand while handling infected tissue, "nobody knows what the consequences would be.")

Riley says he doubts hunters would take such a risk if they actually saw what a prion disease does to its victims. In his wife's final weeks, he notes, she went from being a happy, vibrant woman to someone who appeared to have suffered a severe stroke.

"You can't see something like that and not come away a little paranoid," Riley says. And he believes many of his wife's friends and family members would agree.

Just recently, he says, he bumped into an acquaintance who expressed concern that her husband -- an avid deer hunter, in his 40s -- was showing some of the same symptoms Mary Riley exhibited during the early stages of her disease.

"It gave me goose bumps," says Riley, who advised the woman not to take any chances and to take her husband to the Marshfield Clinic "so that at least she knew what she was dealing with."

Chances are it wasn't anything serious, Riley says. But until we know more about CWD, he says, isn't it better to err on the side of caution?

"Granted, there aren't a million cases of it -- yet," he says. "But I'll tell you what, if this thing starts to snowball, how are we going to stop it?"

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