mad cow disease, mad cow outbreak
Yaron Kamisnky/AP

Scientists Warn of Mad Cow Disease’s “Second Wave” in Britain

December 09, 2008 02:56 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The disease’s ability to stay in the human body with no symptoms could cause a new outbreak, and more deaths, says a new study.

Human Strain Could Be Deadlier Than Ever

An individual’s genes determine whether a person will develop mad cow disease and the amount of time it takes for a person to show symptoms from the infection, according to a study published in the journal Lancet Neurology, which analyzed DNA samples from infected British patients.

Scientists estimate that up to one in 4,000 people in Britain may be carrying the infection, which has the ability to stay in the body with no symptoms, but not all of those people will eventually develop the disease, called new variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (CJD) in humans.

“A second wave of CJD with a longer incubation time might hit these shores, but we do not know whether this will be a tidal wave or just an imperceptible ripple,” warned scientists from the Ludwig-Maximillians University and the Helmholtz Zentrum in Munich, in the journal.

The first blood test for vCJD is undergoing clinical trials, and in the future could be used to screen blood transfusions for the infection.

Historical Context: Mad cow disease in Europe

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), was first identified in Britain in 1985 and infected more than 100,000 cattle during an outbreak in Europe in the mid-1990s, according to PBS. The chronic degenerative disease attacks the central nervous systems of cattle, destroys brain tissue and later causes dementia and death. 

The human variant of the disease—new variant Crueutzfeldt Jakob disease—is contracted by eating tainted meat products, and symptoms include insomnia, memory loss and depression. Recent outbreaks of the disease have inspired beef import restrictions and other measures to protect the food supply. It is thought that outbreaks have been exacerbated by “animal recycling,” or “the use of bone meal and other ground animal parts in commercial feeds. As a result, many animals have been slaughtered and incinerated to prevent the further spread of infection.

Related Topics: South Koreans and American beef; Irish pork recall, new U.S. regulations

South Koreans recently started consuming American beef again when supermarket chains started selling it earlier this month. The country banned American meat in 2003 after massive popular protests due to fear of mad cow disease; that ban was lifted earlier this year, but only smaller butcher shops and some restaurants had offered American beef to consumers until recently. Foreign Policy magazine posited that the move was motivated by the tough economic times, as American beef is 60–70 percent cheaper than Korean beef.

Europeans looking to eat more pork in order to avoid tainted beef may want to think again. Ireland is removing possibly contaminated pork products from shelves in up to 25 countries, including the United States, Russia, Japan, China, France and Germany, because they may be tainted with dioxins. The dangerous chemicals can cause cancer after prolonged exposure. The international recall applies to all Irish pork products made since Sept. 1, 2008.

In the United States, the Associated Press reports that a new federal regulation aimed at stopping the spread of the disease in cattle may have unintended health dangers. The new Food and Drug Administration rule will take effect in April, and prohibits “the use of the brain and spinal cords of older cattle as ingredients in livestock feed and pet food.” Industry officials are worried that farmers who would have otherwise disposed of dead cattle by including them in feed will now resort to burying dead animals on their property or letting them rot on their farms, spreading germs and polluting water.

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