- LONDON (Reuters) - More than
four years after British scientists discovered a link between ``mad cow''
disease (BSE) and its human equivalent, doctors are still mystified by
the illness for which there is no treatment or cure.
- Eighty-four people have been struck down by new variant
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or vCJD. More than 70 have died and no one is
sure how many other people may be harboring the disease.
- Estimates of new infections range from hundreds to millions.
- Scientists do not know how long the disease incubates
in the body, the extent of exposure or if any resistant factors are involved.
In short, they have no way of knowing who will get it or when.
- Ministers in Britain's previous government are expected
to take the brunt of criticism for their handling of the BSE crisis when
the results of a long-awaited inquiry are made public on Thursday.
- But Dr Steve Dealler, a British microbiologist and BSE
expert, said although errors were made and more aggressive action should
have been taken to curtail the public health crisis little could have been
done for today's vCJD victims.
- ``There is nothing we could have done about the cases
of vCJD we are seeing at the moment. What we could have done was not change
the way cows were fed or organized things so that this kind of disease
would not have appeared,'' he told Reuters.
- Demand For Cheap Food
- Scientists believe BSE was caused by feeding the carcasses
of sheep infected with a related brain disease to cattle. Dealler said
it dates back to World War Two when Britain was under pressure to increase
output from its limited amount of land.
- Both Dealler and Ray Bradley, a retired pathologist with
the Veterinary Laboratory Agency where the first case of BSE was diagnosed,
said vCJD sufferers would have been infected before the government imposed
a ban on feeding animal remains to cattle.
- ``The cases we are seeing at the moment almost certainly
would have been infected long before any ban could have come in or long
before any action could have been taken,'' said Dealler.
- The first case of BSE was identified in British cattle
in 1986 and a decade later researchers linked it to vCJD.
- ``There is no doubt that it is the same form of BSE.
It is BSE but how we caught it is another matter. It fits fairly well with
diet but we are not sure why younger people, and not older ones, are going
down with it. It's not clear exactly what the mode of transmission precisely
is,'' according to Dealler.
- Mutated Brain Protein Cause Of Disease
- Most scientists are convinced that eating contaminated
beef is the most likely mode of transmission.
- Both diseases are caused by tiny mutated brain proteins
called prions that are normally present in the brain and other tissues.
- The illness develops when the proteins fold in an abnormal
way. They multiply, clump up and cause the brain to become spongy and wither.
Sufferers become confused, lose their coordination and slowly deteriorate
- Death usually occurs about a year to 18 months after
the onset of symptoms. Cases are confirmed by a pathological exam after
- ``There is no treatment, no cure, no test,'' said Dealler,
adding that scientists are now working on a diagnostic blood test.
- But he said even if one is developed it will cause ethical
dilemmas because a diagnosis means certain death.
- Dealler believes a ``severe conflict of interest'' between
the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, which was trying
to protect the cattle industry, was behind the mishandling of the BSE crisis.
- ``After a while the Ministry of Agriculture got itself
to such a point that it couldn't go back and say we were wrong. It had
to cross its fingers and hope BSE wasn't going to infect humans,'' he added.
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