Wasting Away In The West

Arnie Blume
In the second report in a three-part series, CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales reports on a mad cow-like disease that destroys the brain and is killing deer and elk in the American West.

Although there's never been a case of mad-cow disease reported in the United States, a very similar disease that destroys the brain is killing deer and elk in the American West and it's spreading.

Wyoming state veterinarian Tom Thorn said that mad cow disease drew a lot of attention to it. "What we watch for in an affected deer is kind of a hollow look in their eyes, they drink a lot. They don't eat very much."

They waste away, which is why the always-fatal disorder is called Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD. The animals also behave strangely, losing their fear of humans as CWD destroys their brains. But an infected animal can look totally normal in the early stages of the disease, when an autopsy can detect it.

CWD was first noticed at a Colorado research facility in 1967. Mike Miller with the Colorado Division of Wildlife told a government committee recently, "What we are seeing is an epidemic occurring in slow motion."

Scientists say the epidemic is slowly spreading among wild deer and elk in Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado, where at least 15 percent of some wild herds are infected. It's also been found on game farms in five states and one Canadian province.

Chronic Wasting Disease
Click here to watch video from the Wyoming Game & Fish Department of deer and elk with Chronic Wasting Disease.
In a video produced by wildlife officials in Colorado and Wyoming, hunters are told, "relatively little is known about chronic wasting disease." And they're warned to wear gloves and avoid touching or eating parts of the animal where the disease is concentrated: the brain, spinal column, lymph nodes, tonsil, spleen and bone marrow.

When it was detected in Montana, drastic measures were taken. Scores of game farm elk were incinerated. Dozens of deer on nearby land were hunted by helicopter, killed and tested to keep this highly contagious disease from spreading.

Hunters are being used to control the spread of CWD in the wild. In Colorado the hunting eason was extended this year in some disease areas as a way to try and lower the diseased animal population. Hunters in some sections of the state must drop off deer heads for CWD testing. Testing is voluntary in Wyoming and Nebraska.

Wildlife officials insist that as long as hunters are informed about CWD and take precautions, the disease is not a human health threat.

Thorn argues, "You cannot say with 100 percent certainty that it won't transmit to people, but there is no evidence that it will transmit to people."

When asked if he was concerned about CWD, Thorn said, "No. I've lived here quite a long time. I've hunted here. I just have not seen any credible evidence that it's going to kill me or anybody else.

Despite all the official assurances, some hunters and their families fear eating diseased meat could infect them with the same fatal brain disorder that's killing deer and elk.

"I've hunted in this area and I've been eating deer all my life," said Chris Melani, who shot a deer in Colorado and, as required, turned in the head for testing. He says he was told he would be notified within three weeks if his deer had the disease.

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"I didn't get a notice so I figured everything was ok with the deer. We started eating it," he said.

Melani, and his then-pregnant wife Deb, also sent some of the meat to a sausage maker who sold it to other customers. The Melani's gave their sausage to friends and family as Christmas presents. Then, almost two months after his hunt, Melani received a letter.

"I was shocked when I started reading it, recalls Melani.

His deer had CWD.(click here to read the letter in .pdf format.)

"What's done is done. You just go on with your life and hope it's healthy," Melani said.

But Jay Whitock didn't get to go on with his life.

Jay, an Oklahoma hunter, was 27 when he developed a brain disorder similar to CWD and mad cow disease.

Julie Whitlock said, "Jay's case is not genetic. They have ruled that out. And they said we'll probably never know actually how Jay did get it."

Jay Whitlock died a year after CBS News spoke with him.

His case, and two others, were discussed at a recent government meeting on Chronic Wasting Disease.(click here to read the FDA's Agenda and Briefing Information for the meeting.)

Although the victims ate deer meat, scientists could not link their deaths to CWD.

Dr. Ermias Belayof the CDC told the FDA panel, "However, our conclusions are limited to three patients and continued surveillance remains very critical to continue to monitor the possible transmission of chronic wasting disease to humans."

There is evidence, at least in the lab, that in rare cases this disease can alter human brain tissue, almost as effectively as mad cow disease.

The government says, so far, there is no proof any humans have been infected by deer and elk. But after the deaths in Europe, no one is willing to say it can't happen here.

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