News on the Chronic Wasting Disease story:

OVERVIEW: Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a Mad Cow Disease-like illness in deer, elk, and similar animals. Like Mad Cow Disease, it destroys the brains of its victims; like mad cow, it is believed to be spread by disease-producing agents which are resistant to sterilization (whether these are "prions" or some other cause such as a slow virus or an inorganic nucleant is still not agreed on by all leading researchers). And, like mad cow, there is no known cure for this disease - once contracted, it is always fatal.

The Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance's Web Site, a joint project of the Boone and Crockett Club, Mule Deer Foundation, and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

A Denver television station announced on the afternoon of July 11, 2002 that a local man who had hunted (and presumably skinned and eaten) elk most of his life recently died of symptoms very similar to the "chronic wasting disease" affecting elk, deer and other cervid species in North America and whose symptoms resemble Mad Cow Disease.

That Denver TV news flash may have been a little rash. Two hunters in the areas of Colorado and Montana (where Chronic Wasting Disease has been rampant among elk and deer) have been officially diagnosed as having died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), a spongiform encephalitis which is similar, but not identical to mad cow disease and chronic wasting disease. Many medical researchers believe that Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease may be caused by agents similar to those causing mad cow and CWD. Like mad cow and CWD, Creutzfeld-Jakob disease destroys the brains of its victims, has no cure, and is always fatal.

The families of these men are understandably upset at the circumstances surrounding their death, but preliminary lab work shows that the brain tissue of the men lacked the differences which have been discerned between "classical Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease" and "new variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease" (which is what mad cow disease is officially known as when found in humans) in other human cases.

Unfortunately, since no human has yet been known to have died of chronic wasting disease, there is no way of being sure that the differences in mad cow brain damage and that caused by Creutzfeld-Jakob would allow a pathologist to distinguish between a human CJD brain and a human CWD brain. It's not yet known what damage to a human brain caused by chronic wasting disease would look like, or whether it would be easily distinguished from mad cow or Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.

What does all of this mean? Those two hunters who died may be the evidence that Chronic Wasting Disease can be contracted by man - evidence as ominous as the first recognized human fatalities from Mad Cow Disease. Or these gentlemen may have died of sporadic Cruetzfeld-Jacob disease, or new variant CJD (the official term for "mad cow disease" when it crosses the species barrier into humans). We don't know yet.

On July 11, 2002 the Colorado Wildlife Commission approved an emergency regulation requiring hunters to have the heads of the deer or elk they kill in northeastern Colorado tested for chronic wasting disease. The commission approved the regulation during a meeting in Durango, Colorado. The Division of Wildlife will pay for the tests within the area of northeastern Colorado where CWD is believed to be endemic. Testing has been voluntary in the area the past few years. Hunters can have deer or elk taken outside this area tested for $25.

In late September 2002, the Colorado Division of Wildlife reported an elk found west of the Continental Divide to have CWD. This is far outside the area to which the CWD epizootic (an outbreak of a contagious illness among animals) was generally thought to be confined.

In 2008, the explosion in the Colorado elk population has led to a proposed culling of the elk herd by professional sharpshooters (as opposed to allowing hunters to cull the population) as well as testing of a birth control drug for female elk, conducted along with live testing of elk for Chronic Wasting Disease - with any elk testing positive for that disease to be euthanized.

More on this story as I learn more.

In the meantime, there are precautions that hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts can take to reduce the risk of exposure to CWD.

The Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance's Recommendation for Hunters: Simple Precautions list some common-sense steps outdoorsmen can take to avoid CWD; special emphasis on limiting contact with brain, spinal cord and other tissue known to be especially infective for CWD.

Common-Sense Precautions for handling and processing deer, a guide published by the State of Wisconsin to safely dressing deer carcasses;

National Homeland Security Knowledgebase

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