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Can humans catch 'Mad Deer Disease'?

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Millions of hunters and others who eat deer or elk are unwitting subjects in a real-life experiment on whether humans can catch a fatal brain infection related to Mad Cow Disease, according to a top specialist.

"Our own nightmare here in the United States is chronic wasting disease of deer," Dr. Corrie Brown said yesterday at the 103rd national meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. Brown, of the University of Georgia in Athens, is an expert on infectious diseases in animals which are used as food.

Chronic wasting disease, also termed "Mad Deer Disease," is caused by a strange infectious protein -- termed a prion (pree-on). CWD also occurs in elk.

It's a cousin of the prions responsible for fatal brain diseases in other animals and humans. Among them are Mad Cow Disease, or bovine spongiform encephalitis, which decimated cattle herds in the United Kingdom and Europe in the 1990s and spread to people who ate infected beef.

About 130 people in Britain have developed the human version of Mad Cow Disease, which is known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The infection is fatal, usually within 2 years after symptoms appear. Estimates of the human toll during the next 80 years range from 540 to 50,000.

Brown said deer and elk do pass CWD among themselves, perhaps via contact with saliva or feces.

"It has had a tremendous impact on the wildlife industry," she said, by discouraging hunting and decimating farm herds of elk in the western United States.

As of March 1, CWD has been confirmed in animals in Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming and parts of Canada, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Wildlife officials are monitoring animals in adjacent states. Tests on more than 500 deer taken by Pennsylvania hunters in 2002 showed no traces of CWD, according to the state game commission.

Officials out West have launched an aggressive program to kill infected animals to prevent the spread of CWD. An estimated 225,000 have been killed so far. Tests on their brains will help establish the extent of infection.

"We don't know whether it is infectious to humans," Brown said. "There's no way to find out without doing the real-life experiment we're doing now."

There is no known treatment, vaccine or live animal test for CWD. It has been transmitted under laboratory conditions to mice, goats, monkeys and other animals.

While health officials have not recommended a ban on deer hunting, they are closely monitoring deer hunters and their kills. Hunters might be at risk when they contact blood or tissue while gutting animals, or from eating the meat, Brown said.

Deer can be infected for several years before showing symptoms, so it is impossible for hunters to recognize infected animals. Symptoms include loss of weight, unusual behavior, excessive salivation and increased drinking and urination.

Michael Woods can be reached at mwoods@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7072.

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