'More research urged
These cases really raise the ante,' Mayo doctor says
By Eric Atherton
Sixteen years ago, cattle began dying in England of a brain-wasting disease. The public was told the condition wasn't a threat to people who ate beef.
Nine years later, people began dying of what is now widely known as "mad cow disease."
Could the same scenario be playing out with chronic wasting disease in the United States? Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group and a professor of medicine and infectious diseases, isn't ready to dismiss the possibility.
"In my mind, this is scary stuff," Poland said. "As physicians with this data in hand, we need to have a high index of suspicion. We need to be looking for this disease in people. And all states, everywhere there's hunting, must now aggressively look for this disease in their elk and deer herds."
The World Health Organization's official position about chronic wasting disease is that there has never been a documented case in which a human contracted a brain-wasting disease by eating an infected animal. Poland, however, believes the significance of this lack of evidence should not be overestimated.
"You can't use the absence of known cases as your safety net," he said. "Look at what's happening with the West Nile virus. The more we look, the more cases we're finding. You have to look hard before you can say it's safe."
Deer hunters and consumers of venison are not the only ones concerned. Today, concern about possible transmission of mad cow disease is the reason potential blood donors must answer questions about their travels in Europe. If evidence is found that chronic wasting disease can cross the species barrier between animals and humans, the consequences would be enormous.
"This has huge ramifications for organ donation and blood donation," Poland said. "If we learn this condition can be spread to humans, look at how many people eat elk or venison."
Despite these concerns, Poland emphasizes that panic is not the answer. Research is.
And the time is now.
"These cases really raise the ante in my mind," he said. "We have to put resources into understanding this disease."
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is in the final stages of developing a testing program for chronic wasting disease in the state's deer herd. The program will be implemented during this fall's deer hunt.
There is no documented case of chronic wasting disease in deer or elk in Minnesota.