Medical experts are investigating the deaths of threehunters from brain-destroying illnesses, in order todetermine whether chronic wasting disease has crossed fromanimals into humans in the U.S., just as Mad Cow disease didin Europe.

The men were friends who ate elk and deer meat at wild gamefeasts hosted by one of them in Wisconsin during the 1980sand ’90s. All three died in the 1990s. Investigators want toknow if the men contracted their diseases from the meat ofinfected game.

So far, there has never been a documented case of a personcontracting a brain-destroying illness from eating wildanimals with chronic wasting disease. “We are not saying itabsolutely can’t happen. We know that it’s a mistake to saythat,” says Dr. Larry Schonberger, of the Centers forDisease Control and Prevention. “It gets a lot of peoplescared and it has economic consequences and everything, sowe need to check it out.”

Chronic wasting disease — an incurable, brain-destroyingillness that kills deer, elk, moose and caribou — wasrecently found in Wisconsin deer. It was identified inColorado elk more than three decades ago and is now known toexist in deer or elk in eight states and Canada. Thousandsof wild animals are being slaughtered in order to preventthe spread of the disease and hunters are advised to haveany game they plan to eat tested first.

Chronic wasting disease is related to mad cow disease incattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. All threediseases are caused by proteins called prions that makeholes in the brain. During the 1990s, scientists confirmedthat people in Europe developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob fromeating beef from cattle infected with Mad Cow disease.

If a link is found between the human deaths and sickanimals, it could be the end of hunting in the U.S. SteveTorbit, a National Wildlife Federation biologist, says “Itmay [still] be possible hunting persists as a way to collecthides or heads and antlers. It is a rocky ride we are in for.”

Dr. G. Richard Olds, of the Medical College of Wisconsin,says it could take as long as 15 years for scientists toprove there?s a link. “I am not trying to scare peopleinappropriately,” he says. “But we need to be honest aboutthis situation.”

This isn?t the only danger in food today. Find out what?s onour grocery store shelves from ?Eating in the Dark? byKathleenHart,click here.

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