April 1, 2005
Brain Disease Found in Deer in New York
By MARC SANTORA
A case of chronic wasting disease, which affects the brain and nervous
system in deer and elk, has been detected for the first time in New
York, according to the State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
Scientists have not found evidence that animals can transmit the disease
to humans, but more research must be done to determine with certainty
that there is no risk to people, said Dr. Byron Caughey, a senior
investigator at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana, a part of
the National Institutes of Health, where the disease is being studied.
Chronic wasting disease is characterized by weight loss, excessive
salivation and, in some cases, head tremors. It is always fatal.
First identified in the 1970's, the disease has since been found in wild
and captive deer and elk in regions of Colorado and Wyoming, where it is
now endemic. In the past five years, infected animals have been
identified over a growing geographic area, including Wisconsin,
Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska and New Mexico, as well
as two provinces in Canada, according to a research paper published by
the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Chronic wasting disease is in the same class of disease as bovine
spongiform encephalopathy (B.S.E.), better known as mad cow disease.
A form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob
disease, first appeared in humans in England after people ate meat from
The leading scientific theory is that Creutzfeldt-Jakob, like B.S.E. and
chronic wasting disease, is caused by a malformed protein - called a
prion - in the brain.
Only a few known prion diseases afflict humans, and all are fatal.
The human cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease revealed that the
species barrier might not always protect humans from animal prion
diseases, but much about the diseases remains unknown.
"We have learned a lot about these diseases in general terms," Dr.
Caughey said. "But there are some very fundamental things we don't
understand." Researchers are trying to determine if chronic wasting
disease can be transmitted from deer and elk to monkeys, but the results
may not be known for some time because the incubation period for the
disease can be years, Dr. Caughey said.
There are no federal regulations governing how states must deal with
sick animals. Many states, worried about the spread of chronic wasting
disease, are setting up programs in which animals are randomly killed
and tested, Dr. Caughey said. Such a program yielded the New York case,
in which a captive white-tailed deer was slaughtered and tested on March
9. The deer had not shown any signs of illness, a spokeswoman for the
state agriculture department, Jessica Chittenden, said. Tests done by
state laboratories were confirmed by the United States Department of
Agriculture on Wednesday.
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