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The BBC's Robert Pigott
"Exactly how big any epidemic will be is impossible to say"
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Prof Stephen DeArmond
There is more we need to learn
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BBC environment correspondent Margaret Gilmore
"Seven world experts published their findngs"
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Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 14:15 GMT
CJD epidemic fear

Meat Meat products should now be clear of the BSE agent

The UK could be hit by a "frightening" spread of new variant CJD, the fatal brain illness linked to mad cow disease, scientists have warned.

But they also say no firm predictions about how many people might die can be made for several years.

The Chief Medical Officer in England, Professor Liam Donaldson, said a major epidemic could not be ruled out.

We have to prepare for perhaps thousands ... of cases of vCJD coming down the line
Professor Hugh Pennington
"We are not going to know for several years whether the size of the epidemic will be a small one - in other words in the hundreds - or a very large one in the hundreds of thousands," he told BBC Radio.

He was reacting to the publication of scientific research that was "as close as you can get to proof" that BSE spread to humans through infected meat products.

The research, carried out by neurobiology experts in Scotland and the US, found that the infectious agents, or prions, that cause BSE and vCJD produced exactly the same disease characteristics in laboratory mice.

"If you add to that the epidemiological data from the UK showing a geographical and temporal link between BSE and vCJD, it becomes indisputable evidence," said Professor Stephen DeArmond, from the University of California, San Francisco, one of the researchers behind the study.

Dangerous tissues

About 50, mostly young, people have so far died of vCJD since its emergence in 1996. About 175,000 cattle have died from BSE.

Mouse The infectious agent is injected into the brains of mice
Efforts have been made to estimate the amount of infected meat which could have got through to consumers before steps were taken to eradicate the most dangerous tissues from the food chain.

One calculation has suggested that by the end of 1995, everyone in the UK would have eaten an average of 80 meals contaminated with the BSE agent.

If that is so, scientists want to know why more people have not yet fallen ill.

Professor DeArmond said there were a number of possible reasons:
  • Getting the disease by eating infected meat is a far less efficient means of transmission than inoculating the BSE prions directly into the brains of mice, which is how scientists study these diseases in the lab.
  • Exposure may have been at a very low level - nobody really knows which particular meat products are responsible for any transmission.
  • A victim needs to be genetically-predisposed to the illness
"Epidemiologists argue that we may be just seeing the leading edge of the problem," said Professor DeArmond.

"Incubation times even among kuru [another prion disease] patients in Papua New Guinea, who got the disease through ritualistic cannibalism, could be from five years to 20 years."

But he emphasised that "we simply don't know" the real scale of the problem.

Genetic predisposition

However, Professor Hugh Pennington, who conducted the inquiry into E.coli deaths in Lanarkshire, said we must be prepared for the worst.

Professor Hugh Pennington Professor Hugh Pennington: Prepare for the worst
"We've been exposed to the BSE agent in the past and so, in a sense, we have to prepare for perhaps thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of cases of vCJD coming down the line."

Professor Peter Smith, who sits on the government's BSE advisory committee, said genetics would offer some protection, but not for everyone.

"All of the cases so far have been of a particular genetic type - unfortunately approximately 40% of the population of the UK are in that category," he said.

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See also:
20 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
CJD-BSE link 'indisputable'
21 Dec 99 |  Health
CJD: What is the risk?
08 Jul 99 |  BSE Inquiry
BSE inquiry: Special report
17 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
BSE cases 'could be tip of iceberg'
17 Dec 99 |  BSE Inquiry
Britain's bill for mad cow crisis
18 Jun 99 |  BSE Inquiry
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