Man's death from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease poses questions
September 11, 2002
In life, Gary Padgham was an outdoorsman, a popular guide who
made his living finding trout in the rivers of Montana. In death
he has become part of a national medical mystery: What causes
Tests are reportedly under way at the University of California
at San Francisco to determine whether his death two weeks ago
at a Monterey convalescent hospital was caused by the poorly understood
brain disease, which is blamed for one in every 1 million deaths.
While awaiting the results, family members in California and
former co-worker Joan Watts in Montana are trying to piece together
how Padgham, 50, acquired the always-fatal condition. Padgham's
relatives have declined to speak on the record pending the outcome
of the testing, but have told others that they believe Padgham
may have become ill from eating deer or elk infected with chronic
wasting disease in Montana. However, health officials say there
is no scientific evidence that chronic wasting disease can be
transmitted from deer or elk to humans.
Padgham was a fishing guide and outfitter who lived in Bozeman,
Mont., and occasionally ate wild game, said Watts.
Before contracting the illness, Padgham had diabetes but was
very active and fairly healthy, Watts said. She first noticed
Padgham's symptoms last October when he started shaking and stumbling.
"I thought he had Parkinson's," she said. The initial
diagnosis was Huntington's disease.
By early July, Watts said, Padgham had lost much of his motor
control. He was airlifted to the University of Washington Medical
Center in Seattle, where he was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob.
The day after she learned about Padgham's diagnosis, Watts read
a news article about an ongoing investigation into the deaths
of two Wisconsin hunters and a Minnesota hunter, all venison eaters
who had died several years ago from degenerative brain diseases.
It was then that she and others began suspecting that Padgham's
illness might be linked to deer or elk, she said.
Concerns about chronic wasting have led to the eradication of
deer herds in Colorado and Wisconsin. First identified in 1967,
chronic wasting disease has now shown up in 10 states, including
Though the World Health Organization warns against eating any
part of a deer with signs of the disease, medical researchers
say there is no documented case of chronic wasting disease infecting
Jim Murphy, a health specialist with Montana's Department of
Public Health and Human Services, said there is absolutely no
evidence that chronic wasting disease has ever jumped to humans
from deer or elk the way the related mad-cow disease crossed the
species barrier in Europe.
Part of the difficulty in trying to link Creutzfeldt-Jakob with
anything a victim might have eaten is that the cases are so rare,
Murphy said. Montana gets about one reported case every two years,
he said. "It's hard to link up such rare events with a significant
cause," he said.
Murphy said 75 percent of Montana men hunt and many more eat
wild game. He said it would be impossible to link Creutzfeldt-Jakob
with chronic wasting disease unless there was an "exact match"
genetically between the deer meat and affected human tissue.
Referring to people afflicted with Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Murphy
said "No doctor would have responsibly told them that they
got it from (deer or elk)." In most Creutzfeldt-Jakob cases,
the mode of transmission is never determined.
Some patients with Creutzfeldt-Jakob have medical histories of
corneal transplants or injections of growth hormones prepared
from human pituitary glands. Other patients with the disease have
had a history of brain surgery within two years of diagnosis.
Health officials from Monterey County said they were aware of
Padgham's case but were not investigating.
"It's not an unusual age range that would catch our attention
for further evaluation," said Dr. Alicia Paris-Pombo, an
epidemiologist with the county Health Department. Victims are
typically 35 years or older.
Jennifer O'Brien, a spokesman for UC-San Francisco, said there
is no evidence that Padgham suffered from chronic wasting disease.
She would not comment on details of the current procedures.
UCSF is one of the top research facilities for the study of Creutzfeldt-Jakob.
The university's Dr. Stanley Prusiner won the Nobel Prize in 1997
for his research identifying a connection between abnormal proteins
and neurodegenerative diseases such as mad cow disease, chronic
wasting disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob.
Pathologists at UCSF regularly conduct autopsies of patients
with the disease, a process that usually takes about two to three
weeks, O'Brien said.
She said researchers look at brain tissue to determine whether
Creutzfeldt-Jakob occurred spontaneously or from another cause.
Padgham led guided fishing expeditions for more than 15 years
and worked as a freelance graphic designer during the winter months.
Padgham was featured in a TV commercial for Ford Explorer that
still runs on many sports stations.
He was a 1969 graduate of Carmel High School who was an avid
steelhead fisherman before moving to Montana in 1982.