Ralph M. Garruto, professor of biomedical anthropology at Binghamton University, State University of New York, is heading up a study to monitor the health implications of a group of people who are known to have consumed venison infected with CWD. Recently discovered in both wild and captive deer herds in New York, CWD is similar to mad cow disease in that it concentrates in the spinal cord and brain, and is caused by a virtually indestructible mutated protein called a prion.
"We don't know if CWD can be transmitted to humans," said Garruto. "So this group, some of whom we know for sure ate infected meat, offers us a unique opportunity. I'm hoping the study will allow us to determine if this disease can affect humans in the same way mad cow disease has been shown to cause neurological disease in those who consume infected beef."
The study focuses on a group of people who attended a Sportman's feast in Verona, NY, earlier this year. It is known that at least some of the attendees, all of whom were offered a variety of entree choices, consumed venison from a deer infected with CWD. Upon hearing of the dinner, Garruto approached the Oneida County Health Department (OCHD) to determine if they would assist in a scientific examination of the people who ate the meat.
"Although not everyone involved is particularly concerned or fearful, it is important for us to protect the health of all county residents,' said Ken Fanelli, OCHD representative. "Professor Garruto's study is a proactive response to determining what, if any, will be the long-term health effects, which is one of our most important responsibilities."
Over 50 individuals have already indicated their interest in being part of the study that will involve an initial interview and completion of a questionnaire to help assess risk, including the role played by individuals at the dinner, what they ate, their place of residence, occupation, medical history and other activities. The study will monitor the health of the participants over a period of six years. No invasive testing will be performed and identities will be kept strictly confidential.
"The people who take part in this project can be assured that every measure will be taken to ensure their privacy,' said Garruto. "Their contribution is vital to the success of this 'first of its kind' research that may hold world-wide significance in the study of CWD and similar prion diseases."
CWD was first discovered in Colorado in 1967 and has since been documented in several Rocky Mountain and Midwest states. This year, New York State became the first state west of the Mississippi to report CWD in both privately owned and wild deer herds found in parts of Oneida County. Most recently in September, West Virginia reported its first cases of the disease. How the disease is spread from deer-to-deer and how it may impact the environment in which infected animals graze is unclear.
"We're looking at an issue that could have multiple impacts,' said Garruto. "Human health and keeping the food supply safe is of primary concern. But we also have to monitor how to keep this epidemic from spreading among deer and across species, from deer to cattle, both of which could have huge economic as well as health implications."
Garruto notes that although a prion disease appears to be transmitted through direct animal-to-animal contact and/or indirect exposure, including contaminated water, soil and brouze by saliva, urine, and feces, it is still unclear as to how it's transmitted.
"CWD demands a lot more attention than it's been getting," says Garruto. "Too little research has been done so far to be sure humans can't contract the disease and we do not know if transmission from deer to cattle who share the same grazing land is possible. This is an important missing link as cow to human cross-species transmission does take place, evidenced by the mad cow and variant Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease epidemics in Europe. This study will give us some solid conclusions and allow us determine how to manage the risks."
Binghamton University is one of the four university centers of the State University of New York. Known for the excellence of its students, faculty, staff and programs, Binghamton enrolls about 14,000 students in programs leading to bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. Its curriculum, founded in the liberal arts, has expanded to include selected professional and graduate programs.