A rare degenerative brain disorder was suspected in the deaths of four people in northeastern Indiana during the past five months, health officials said.
Allen County Health Commissioner Deborah McMahan said the deaths were suspected to have been caused by Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. After the third death, McMahan contacted the state health department and asked that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention be notified.
Northeastern Indiana's hospitals serve about 1 million people, McMahan estimated. Based on CDC figures of fewer than 300 cases a year across the country, the Fort Wayne area might expect one death from the disease a year.
Testing of brain tissue from two victims was planned as that is considered the only definitive way to determine whether a person had CJD. Health officials said the four deaths appear to be from classic CJD and not related to mad cow disease, which is linked to the rare variant CJD found in humans.
Pam Jacquay of New Haven lost her 53-year-old husband, John, to the disease in March. She said that within weeks after Christmas he couldn't drive and soon forgot how to do common tasks such as dressing and shaving.
"One minute he could do something and the next minute it made no sense to him. In the last week of his life he lost any ability to communicate with us at all," Jacquay said. "This just wasn't the way it was supposed to happen."
She said she hoped health officials continue to investigate the reasons for the area's number of cases and that increased awareness will lead to treatment for what is now an incurable disease. State epidemiologist Bob Teclaw said he was not drawing any conclusions from the deaths in northeastern Indiana. At this point, "we're in the wait-and-see mode," he said.
While the government takes the position there is no link between the rare disease and Mad Cow disease, the families of people who've died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease believe a link exists. There is also a belief that many cases being diagnosed as Alzheimer's Disease are actually cases of CJD. My concern is that the government has put the protection of the nation's beef industry ahead of public health concerns. We may be consuming contaminated beef unwittingly because the USDA has refused to perform widescale testing of cattle being raised for human consumption. It is also disturbing that our own state Department of Health has raised no red flags in spite of the unusally high number of deaths in recent months. Their "wait-and-see mode" is not in the least be reassuring that anyone is tending to the potentially serious public health risk at hand.
Fort Wayne Observed has more on the CJD story. As FWOB notes, there was legislation introduced by Rep. David Orentlicher (D-Indianapolis ) during this year's legislative session to require the state to track cases of CJD. HB 1502 died in the House Public Health Committee without every receiving a hearing. FWOB editor Mitch Harper knew one of the victims of CJD. As Harper wrote earlier this year:
Jean Burgette was my friend. I saw her several times during the course of her illness. You cannot comprehend the terrifying swiftness of this disease that robs you of the person before it robs the person of life. The television report does not even hint at the awfulness of the neurological symptoms which occur after the personality and cognition are lost. The legislation is sound and should be passed.