Mad Cow Disease Puts Millions At Risk 


It was four years ago that scientists first suspected that eating beef from cows infected with mad cow disease was linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rare and fatal brain malady that causes spongy holes to develop on human victims' brains. Panic ensued: More than 4 million cows in Britain were slaughtered to prevent the disease from spreading, and countries around the world banned British beef imports. Since then, the furor has died down and the British have quietly gone back into the beef-exporting business.

But we haven't heard the last of mad cow disease yet, nor are we likely to for some time, according to a report published in the August 5 edition of Lancet. In fact, since 1995, deaths from the variation of CJD linked to mad cow disease have risen by 33 percent each year. At press time, a total of 75 cases had been identified by the United Kingdom's National CJD Surveillance Unit, including 14 deaths from the disease this year, mostly in young adults or teenagers.

The reason why this fatal affliction strikes the young is horrific. British researcher Robert Will, Ph.D., head of the CJD surveillance unit, believes that meat-processing methods in the 1980s may have put millions of children at risk. Back then, infant foods and school lunch meats were often made of ground-up leftovers from cattle carcasses. These "foods" may have included pieces of cow spinal cords and nervous tissue, the parts most likely to transmit mad cow disease to humans. In fact, giving cows "protein feed supplements" the same type of ground-up animal carcasses fed to British children—is what started the epidemic in the first place. And since the disease is believed to have a long incubation period in humans (an estimated 20 to 60 years), the British may just be starting to see the effects of eating these nightmarish foods.

Worse, the epidemic might not be confined to merry old England. Mad cow disease has been positively identified in herds in Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Switzerland and Denmark. And recently, a panel of European Union (EU) scientists published a report stating that mad cow disease is "probably present" in cattle in Germany, Spain and Italy, even though these countries insist they are free of it. Of the other 23 countries investigated, the only ones rated as having a low risk of harboring the disease are Austria, Finland and Sweden. The EU researchers also concluded that the risk "cannot be excluded" in the United States or Canada. Moreover, British researchers fear that other animals exposed to contaminated feed—including pigs and sheep—could carry the disease.

Estimates of how many Britons will die from the disease vary widely. Previously, British scientists predicted that for every infected cow consumed, as many as 100 people would eventually die of CJD. But now scientists have discovered that only about 40 percent of the British population is genetically predisposed to developing it. Using a computer model, Oxford scientists estimated that the maximum number of cases likely to develop lies somewhere between 6,000 and 136,000, as reported in the August 10 issue of Nature. Yet it may be a long time before we know if this is a realistic prediction since the incubation period is still unknown. Furthermore, this estimate is based only on the British population's risk. If the disease spreads from infected cows to humans in other countries, we may have a real epidemic on our hands—and a lot more converts to vegetarianism.

Copyright November, 2000, Vegetarian Times. All rights reserved.