Mad Cow/CJD Death
Cluster Sparks New
Fears In UK
By Louella Houldcroft - Health Correspondent
The North-East may be sitting on a CJD timebomb, a leading expert in the disease warned last night.
Nine people are known to have died on Wearside from the human form of BSE in just over a decade, The Journal can reveal.
Now families and experts in the region claim the disease could affect as many as one in 10 of the population.
North-East virologist Dr Harash Narang, who has been responsible for conducting brain biopsies on hundreds of suspected CJD victims, says the true figure is far higher than the confirmed nine.
But Government experts at the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh have only looked at the brain tissue of a "selected sample" and the true figures will never be known, he said.
Now families are hoping the results of the BSE inquiry, due out next month, will force the Government to take action and find a way of preventing this killer disease from spreading.
Jane Fairbairn, of Grange Town, Sunderland, whose 27-year-old daughter Mandi Minto died of CJD in 1997, said she believed this was just "the tip of the iceberg".
"I believe we will have an epidemic on our hands and there will be nothing we can do to stop it," she said.
"And I think there have already been many, many more deaths but because CJD hits people in different ways it is not always identified.
"There has been a lot of talk and not much action, despite the overwhelming evidence that CJD is claiming lives, and I just hope the inquiry will force the Government to take action."
And on being told of the cluster she called for answers saying even a single death was one too many.
"I am convinced my daughter died through eating BSE-infected meat. If there are many others in the area who died in the same way then we need to know why," she said.
"This is a frightening disease and the public has to know how, why and when contaminated meat entered the food chain."
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, causes a cow's brain to degenerate and become "spongy" in appearance.
Last week, the Government produced its latest CJD figures, showing a four-fold rise in the number of deaths since 1999. A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "There is strong evidence that new variant CJD did not exist before 1995.
"We are obviously concerned about the rise in the number of deaths and are awaiting the results of the inquiry."
Lord Phillips, leading the inquiry, said: "No one can say whether or not the victims so far are just the tip of the iceberg of an infection that is still concealed from sight.
"This is an unusual inquiry in that, while we are investigating events which led to a disaster, the full extent of that disaster may not be clear for many years to come."
So far experts have been unable to say why there is a cluster of victims of CJD in the region.
Among those struck down by the disease was Kevin Stock, the parish priest of St Columba's Church in Sunderland, who died in 1993.
His sister, Brenda Gilbert, said it had been his dream to raise enough money to replace the church bell.
"He helped to raise over £30,000 but never got to see the new bell because of the illness," said Brenda. "It started with him forgetting what he was saying half way through sermons then he just got worse and worse."
Ralph Boutflower died within months of becoming ill and after his death in 1989 a biopsy was carried out at the Newcastle General Hospital which confirmed he had died of CJD.
His wife, Sarah, said she and her children only realised the connection with BSE when pictures of cows collapsing with the disease appeared on television.
"My son said to me 'That's exactly how my dad went'," she said.
The other victims in the Wearside cluster identified by Dr Narang are: Jean Wake, 38, from Washington; Peter Hall, 20, who studied in Sunderland; June Fazakerley, 62, from Silksworth, Sunderland; Doreen Guy, 61 from Seaham; Stephen Churchill, 19, from Seaham; and a 67-year-old Seaham woman identified only as Mary.
Last month, Prof Robert Wills linked CJD to school meals and baby food during the 1980s and fears have been raised about the spread of the disease in milk and through dental instruments.
Last month, the first sample of brain tissue from a haemophiliac was sent to Edinburgh following fears that CJD may have been transmitted through blood transfusions.
Frances Hall, whose son Peter died in 1996, runs the human BSE foundation based in Durham. She said: "Who ate the wrong meat and who didn't is a bit like playing Russian roulette and I doubt anyone is safe.
"What is worrying is they got it wrong so often - told us one thing then found out another.

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