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    Mad cow danger may be bigger than thought

    Below the drumbeat of reassurances from government and the cattle industry that the meat supply remains safe despite this one case of mad cow disease, a small universe of scientists working on a family of related illnesses is finding disturbing evidence to the contrary.

    Several studies, including research at a government laboratory in Montana, continue to spark questions about human susceptibility not only to mad cow, but also to sister diseases such as chronic wasting disease, which mainly affects deer and elk, and scrapie, which infects sheep.

    Mice research and clusters of cases in which humans contracted a disease similar to mad cow also has a few scientists wondering whether consuming infected meat might have killed far more people than medical experts have long assumed, not only in Great Britain, but in the United States as well.

    Most scientists believe the relatively small number of known human cases, called Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, strongly indicates this disease -- whatever its cause or origin -- is rare and difficult to transmit. There is also no evidence yet that scrapie in sheep or chronic wasting disease in deer has ever been passed to humans.

    But some scientists say it's possible that chronic wasting, endemic in Colorado's wild deer and elk, has sickened and proved fatal to humans. These experts challenging the standard view note that doctors haven't -- or can't -- recognize signs of these other forms of the disease during an autopsy.