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Possible Brain-Wasting Disease Kills Nine

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," October 18, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The hunt is on in Idaho for any possible link between several cases of a "brain-wasting disease." The illness could be the culprit behind nine deaths in the state this year, nine deaths from brain wasting.

Joining us now is Dr. Chris Hahn, an epidemiologist with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. So Doctor, is this Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (search) in these people?

DR. CHRIS HAHN, EPIDEMIOLOGIST, IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND WELFARE: In three of the cases, we believe that it is Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or CJD, as it's commonly called.

GIBSON: Isn't that Mad Cow (search)?

HAHN: No, it isn't. There's a lot of confusion about this. It is in the same family of diseases, just like two different viral diseases are, like influenza and measles are both viruses, but they're not the same disease. In the same way ...

GIBSON: These are the sponge-form encephalitis, where essentially people get holes in their brain, correct?

HAHN: Right. The symptoms can be similar and they can also be similar to other diseases, like Alzheimer's, that can also cause a rapid decline mentally.

GIBSON: Well, you know how people are worried about Mad Cow. Are they right to be worried when they see this kind of brain-wasting disease, nine of them in Idaho, and maybe that is what it is?

HAHN: Well, let me clarify. We did have nine reports as you mentioned. We know for sure now that two of them are definitely not Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or any other type of prion disease. That's this family of diseases. So we're talking about seven possible cases.

Yes, to answer your question, people are right to be concerned, and we are concerned and are investigating all the reports very thoroughly because of that.

It's important to note, though, that in Mad Cow Disease in humans, as you call it, which is known as variant CJD in Great Britain, the average age of somebody getting this disease was 28. It affects very young people, and the symptoms are quite different from CJD. There can be some overlap, but it is generally — a physician can tell some signs that tell them that's not what this is.

These cases don't look like Mad Cow.

GIBSON: In these cases, are you comfortable, are authorities and medical personnel comfortable enough about whatever it is that you do, autopsies, that you treat these people as anybody else who has recently died?

HAHN: Right. We very strongly recommend autopsies in all these reported possible cases, because that's the only way to be sure. And there are pathologists that are willing and very interested in helping families to work through that process and get the autopsies done because it's the only way the family gets peace and really knows what happened.

GIBSON: Well, there are some who are afraid of it, right?

HAHN: Right. Some families really just don't want that done and that's their right to make that decision. And there are some doctors that are also not very knowledgeable of this disease or are concerned about possibly being exposed to this disease.

GIBSON: All right. Dr. Chris Hahn with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

HAHN: But we have good doctors that we do work with.

GIBSON: Thanks very much. We'd like to keep an eye on this story.

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