NIH: investigate mad cow disease link to human illness

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 1996:

––Leading researchers from the National
Institutes of Health and other biomedical
research institutions worldwide are calling for
intensive investigation of a long hypothesized
link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE), afflicting 53% of British cattle
herds during the past decade, and CreutzfieldJakob
disease (CJD), a once rare degenerative
condition chiefly afflicting the elderly.
In the past three years CJD has killed
three British cattle farmers in mid-life––and in
1995 killed an 18-year-old part-time cowhand
and a 16-year-old girl who ate cow’s brains in
Cyprus. The boy lived with CJD for nine
months to a year; the girl survived for 14
months. Only four other cases of teenagers
developing CJD had ever been reported––in
France, Canada, Poland, and the U.S. None
of the teen victims to date had known exposure
to cattle with BSE, but the disease has a latency
factor of up to 30 years in humans and at
least six or seven years in bovines.

BSE is believed to have jumped
species barriers before, having apparently
evolved from the sheep disease scrapie, invading
cattle via processed sheep offal formerly
used as an additive to some cattle feed. The
disease has apparently attacked cats by the
same route. Britain banned all use of offal
from sheep with scrapie in 1988, but another
18,000 BSE cases have been detected since.
Trying to bolster plummeting British
confidence in beef, Imperial College School of
Medicine researchers in early December publicized
test results showing that genetically engineered
mice with human proteins developed
CJD when injected with CJD-causing prions,
but not when injected with BSE prions. British
prime minister John Major told Parliament on
December 6 that “There is currently no scientific
evidence that BSE can be transmitted to
humans or that eating beef causes CJD.”
But opinion polls found nine out of
10 Britons didn’t believe him. Beef sales fell
25%, according to the Federation of Fresh
Meat Wholesalers. Several hundred schools
quit serving beef to children. Oxford
University professor of physiology Colin
Blakemore told the London Times, “I stopped
eating beef as soon as the first BSE scare was
made public in 1986. Thames Valley
University professor of food policy Tim Lang
said he’d quit eating beef in 1989 and would
not allow small children to eat it. Brain surgeon
Sir Bernard Tomlinson stated he wouldn’t
eat beef “under any circumstances.” The
British Ministry of Agriculture meanwhile
banned the sale of mechanically recovered
meat from the spinal columns of cattle after
veterinary inspectors paid surprise visits to 193
slaughterhouses and found 92 violations of
rules intended to keep material from spinal
cords, brains, thymuses, and spleens out of
products sold for human consumption.
Up to 34 million people are believed
to have had exposure to BSE; if there is a
causal relationship between BSE and CJD, the
effects may not turn up for decades, but then
could overwhelm medical institutions.
Despite a European Union ruling that
British cattle born after 1992 are free of BSE,
the upper house of the German parliament on
December 15 demanded a total ban on British
beef imports. The militant French farm union
Rural Coordination urged Paris to ban all
imports of British cattle and sheep.

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