Human Mad Cow-CJD
Judgment Day Five Years
Away Says British Expert
By Mike Peacock
CARDIFF (Reuters) - It will be five years at least before scientists will know how many people could fall victim to the human version of mad cow disease, a BSE expert said on Thursday. Professor Roy Anderson, a member of the government committee investigating spongiform encephalopathies, the group of brain diseases that includes mad cow disease, said that because the disease could lie dormant so long it was impossible now to guess how many people may fall victim to it. ``It will probably take five years until we can say anything more sensible,'' Anderson told reporters at the annual science festival. ``We have to learn better to say I don't know.'' To date, there have been 27 cases in Britain of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD), which rots away the brain causing an inevitable and anguished death. The discovery that humans could develop a form of the fatal brain-wasting disease from eating BSE-infected beef sparked an international scare in 1996 and the European Union banned British beef exports worldwide. Anderson said he was still predicting the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) epidemic in cows would be ``at an extremely low level by 2001.'' More than a million cows have been slaughtered since 1996 in an attempt to wipe it out. One of the top experts on brain-wasting diseases, Professor John Collinge of Imperial College London, agreed that the BSE epidemic is on the wane. ``We are moving to the absolute end of this thing,'' he said. After research with mice, Collinge last year verified that CJD in humans is the same as BSE in cows and that the new strain of CJD was probably caused by exposure to infected cattle. He said the main priority was to find a treatment for nvCJD. ``For several hundred million pounds, you could possibly find a treatment for the disease,'' he said. But in a sometimes highly-charged press conference, Professor Richard Lacey of Leeds University, the first person to warn BSE could be passed to humans, said the incidence of BSE could be much higher and repeatedly called for mass screening of cows. He said a reduction in compensation to farmers whose cattle contracted BSE meant there was now a financial incentive not to report a suspected animal. ``We know BSE exists in cows but we don't know the incidence,'' he said, dismissing claims that BSE was definitely on the decline. ``I agree entirely (with Anderson) about the impossibility now of predicting what is going to happen to the UK population,'' Lacey said. ``But I disagree on the interpretation of BSE figures.'' All the experts said a warning that BSE could be present in sheep, was not supported by the evidence. Professor Jeffrey Almond, a third member of the government's spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee (SEAC), told the BBC on Monday there was a theoretical risk that sheep could be infected with BSE. The government rushed to play down the claims and Armstrong said more than 2,250 dead sheep had been tested, only nine had been found to have a scrapie-type illness and in none of those were there signs of BSE. Lacey said even if BSE had got into sheep, humans should be ``invulnerable.'' Humans are not thought to be at risk from the conventional form of scrapie that has infected sheep for centuries.