Our View: Lab’s funding is important public health issue

July 19, 2017 GMT

Fifteen years have passed since the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article with this alarming headline: “Did wild game feeds lead to fatal brain disorders?”

Chronic wasting disease, a neurological disorder that is 100 percent fatal in deer and elk, had just been detected in Wisconsin’s wild deer herd. When an unusual “cluster” of cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was discovered to include several deer hunters, a good deal of panic ensued. People were justifiably worried that, as happened in Great Britain with mad cow disease, people could contract a fatal brain-wasting disease by consuming meat from infected deer.

The good news is that since 2002, a lot of studies and research have concluded that CWD in deer and elk has not crossed the so-called “species barrier.”

The bad news? No one can guarantee that it won’t someday breach that barrier.

That’s one reason we’re concerned about the Trump administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018. As written, it would end all funding and operations of the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. It’s the only lab in the country where the brains of people who died of suspected prion-related diseases are tested and analyzed to determine the presence of abnormal prions.

It’s also the only lab that tests spinal fluid of still-living people to determine whether they have Cruetzfeldt-Jakob, and if so, what variant of the disease they have.

The federal government provides $6 million per year for this lab. While the infection rate of prion-related disease is incredibly low -- only about one in 1 million Americans will develop CJD or a related disease -- some disturbing trends make a strong case for keeping the lab fully funded for the foreseeable future.

In 2002, when chronic wasting disease was discovered in Wisconsin, six people were diagnosed with CJD. Since then, the deer disease has spread like wildfire across Wisconsin’s landscape, and the annual rate of CJD cases in humans has doubled.

Nationwide, there were 260 cases of CJD in 2002. Since then, as the deer herds and/or elk in more than 20 states have become infected with chronic wasting disease, the number of CJD cases has grown to nearly 500 annually.

It’s entirely possible -- probable, even -- that researchers are finding more cases simply because they’re looking harder for them, and given that CJD almost always affects older people, it’s possible that an aging population will have more cases of this awful disease.

But two things are certain about prion diseases: they’re deadly and unpredictable. At first, no one thought humans could contract mad cow disease, but it happened. And now, one study has found that monkeys that ate venison from CWD-positive deer contracted the disease, so it appears that not all primates are immune.

We also know that over time, Wisconsin hunters have become less concerned about making sure the deer they shoot are healthy before they toss venison steaks onto the grill. The Journal Sentinel, which continues to do excellent reporting on CWD, recently revealed that last year, in one area where CWD is prevalent, 12 percent of tested deer had the disease.

That’s disturbing and has major implications for hunters, but the scarier number is this: 65,000 deer killed in that same area weren’t tested, because testing isn’t mandatory. That means we don’t really know how widespread CWD is, and thousands of Wisconsin hunters are choosing to remain happily oblivious as they eat meat from infected deer.

Spending $6 million per year on careful research regarding prion-related diseases is like buying term life insurance. You really don’t want to do it, and there are months when you’d rather not write that premium check, but you know it’s the responsible thing to do.

With CWD having been found here in Southeast Minnesota, we believe it’s important to respond aggressively to prevent spread of the disease in deer and elk, and to remain vigilant and fund research at the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center.