Chronic Wasting Disease -
What Lies Ahead?
Scripps Howard News Service

The story has taken shape over decades. Its ending is still not clear.
But there's no question today that the class of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies has riveted the attention of scientists, policy-makers, hunters, ranchers and others.
As scrapie in sheep, mad cow in cattle, Creutzfeldt-Jakob and its variant form in humans and chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, these TSEs remain mysterious.
Deciphering these diseases is crucial to the Rocky Mountain states, their identity wrapped in huge livestock herds and majestic wildlife.
But further study also could save human lives. Just as the prion has been identified as the agent behind TSEs, some researchers believe that still other misshapen proteins have important links to more widespread maladies, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other degenerative brain diseases.
The science is brand-new, and to date has offered more questions than answers.
Nobel Prize-winner Stanley Prusiner, who identified the infectious agents behind TSEs, believes more research into those links is critical.
"Striking epidemiologic, clinical, pathologic and genetic similarities among Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, (Lou Gehrig's) disease and prion diseases" suggest that prion research could lead to new treatments, Prusiner said at a 1999 gathering of neurologists.
But in the halls of government, and in public policy discussions, such connections are rarely discussed. More emphasis is put on distinguishing the diseases, not on linking them.
In Colorado, the focus is on CWD.
Gov. Bill Owens has created a 10-member task force to guide state policy.
Among the actions the governor views as urgent:
- Boost research funding to ensure it is safe for humans to eat venison.
- Monitor elk and deer populations aggressively to see if the disease is spreading.
- Establish a way to give some level of assurance to hunters of non-tested deer that their game is safe to eat.
The Division of Wildlife is hosting a national symposium on the disease in August, and CWD is a priority for the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.
Meanwhile, calls for more state and federal money are growing.
In Congress, Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., has spearheaded ongoing efforts to draw resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So far, the agency has provided nearly $15 million, most of it to indemnify private elk ranchers with herds exposed to CWD. Lobbying continues for more.
But the learning curve remains steep.
Consider the most fundamental issue associated with the CWD outbreak: Is it safe to eat deer and elk?
Leading regional experts on the disease, along with Gov. Owens, all said yes - if a test came back showing the animal free of infection.
But when the question strikes even closer to home - would they feed it to their children? - the answer is more uncertain.
Division of Wildlife veterinarian Mike Miller, skeptical about the human threat of CWD, says he does eat venison that has tested disease-free, but does not feed it to his children.
"I believe this is a decision each individual has to make, and my kids aren't old enough yet to make their choice," he said. "I don't let them decide whether to drink alcohol or smoke, either."
Owens declined to say. His response may best sum up the bottom line on this mysterious disease.
"I will need a lot more information before I make a decision whether to let them eat it."


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