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Are we still at risk from Mad Cow Disease?

November 2013

Mad Cow disease is once against headline news.

A couple of weeks ago, in late October, most of the UK media carried the story that at least one in 2,000 people in the UK carry an abnormal protein linked to vCJD, or what is commonly known as Mad Cow Disease.

These new figures have renewed fears that the incubation period for this disease is longer than previously believed, and therefore a serious number of people might develop vCJD in the coming years. For our age group, it could mean that not only us, but also our children, who we carefully fed with high protein beef in the 1980s and 90s to make them fit and strong, might be at risk. This is an appalling thought. The disease is horrific and nearly always fatal.

The study was carried out by researchers from Public Health England (we used to know it as the Health Protection Agency); the University College London Institute of Neurology and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency.

I have been lucky enough to meet Professor John Collinge, a professor of neurology and a leading expert at the government’s CJD research unit at University College, London, who has been involved in developing a blood test to identify people infected by the disease.  He says the CJD situation is very worrying indeed.

The disease was unknown when we were young, but most of us will remember the fuss in the late 1980s when news of this disease first reached the public. There were clear indications that the disease had occurred in people who had eaten beef from cattle affected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BCE or mad cow disease).

Since then many controls have been put in place to ensure meat that we eat is safe and free from infectious agents which could be passed onto humans.

But of course big damage had already been done. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, until the new laws and controls came into place, millions of humans were eating beef on a regular basis. Initially it was feared that many would go on to develop vCJD but this hasn’t occurred and the deaths from the disease have so far been in the hundreds rather than the initially feared hundreds of thousands.

It is already known that the incubation period for this disease could run into decades.  If more people than previously thought have been exposed to the disease, once again there could be a sudden surge in numbers of sufferers in future years.

This is a frightening thought.  The disease gradually causes infected brain cells to die and as the infection spreads, it leaves large holes in your brain tissue, which gives the brain a spongy appearance. Early symptoms can include depression, lack of memory and problems with movement but as more and more brain cells are affected, your body’s communication and control system progressively shuts down.

As yet there is no cure. However, research is continuing as fast as possible and already there is a blood test which can give a good indication if the disease is present.  The CJD research unit at University College, London, would like to progress this test into a fully accessible screening tool but a lot more money is required to get there and funding is restricted.

There is quite a lot of information in a recent Daily Mail story

There is also more information at the National Prion Clinic

also at:

and at:


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