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Wednesday, March 17, 1999 Published at 19:52 GMT


Health

CJD families to sue government

New variant CJD is thought to be caused by eating BSE-infected beef

The families of people who have contracted the human form of BSE are to sue the government for exposing them to infected beef.


James Wilkinson reports: "A reminder that CJD is an increasing threat"
Writs were issued on Wednesday for around 10 families of people who have died from new variant CJD.

The action was taken before the end of the BSE inquiry to meet the criteria of the three-year statute of limitations.

The cases are linked to the then Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell's March 20 1996 declaration that a set of nvCJD cases had been identified which were probably related to eating BSE-infected meat.

More cases are likely to be filed before the end of the year.

Thirty-nine people have been confirmed as having nvCJD since 1995.

David Body, the solicitor representing the families, said he will argue that the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food failed in their duty as regulators of the food industry.

He will argue the government, which he said took "draconian measures" to stop infection in 1996, should have acted much earlier.

The families, who qualify for legal aid, are looking for "substantial" compensation claims for the suffering of those who died from nvCJD, the cost of caring for them and the economic effect their death has had on their dependents.

Mr Body said he would also argue for the provision of "proper care" for people with nvCJD.

Referrals

News of the action came as the Department of Health moved to play down reports that the number of referrals of nvCJD cases has risen steeply in recent months, prompting fears of an epidemic.


[ image: NvCJD can currently only be confirmed by a brain biopsy]
NvCJD can currently only be confirmed by a brain biopsy
A Department of Health spokeswoman said the number of referrals was always much higher than the number of confirmed cases.

And a sudden rise in referrals could just represent a cluster rather than an upward trend.

In 1998, 150 cases were referred to the National CJD Surveillance Unit.

Sixty of these were confirmed as having CJD, which comes in several forms. Fifteen of them had new variant CJD, thought to be caused by eating infected beef.

Nine of the 15 cases were in the last quarter, possibly signalling an upward trend.

The spokeswoman confirmed that there had been a rise in referrals in recent months, but said: "We have no idea what this means. It could be higher awareness.

"The unit can have a month with lots of referrals and some with none. By the end of the year it all evens out."

It takes three to four months for cases to be investigated.

The spokeswoman said the Department of Health would release any information as soon as it was available.

Official figures for 1999 show only 16 cases were referred to the surveillance unit by the end of January.

The next figures are due out on 12 April.

Professor John Collinge, a CJD specialist from Imperial College in London, said the rise in referrals and confirmed cases was worrying.

But he said it was "too early to know what the figures mean".

He added that it was still entirely possible that there could be a CJD epidemic.

Simon Cousens of the CJD Surveillance Unit said the new cases were cause for concern, but he added that it was important to wait until the end of the year to see if they represented a trend.

Grief

Meanwhile, the parents of a man who is thought to have died of nvCJD have spoken of their grief.

Twenty-five-year-old Jason Keat died in Bridlington Hospital, Yorkshire, in February after becoming ill last summer.

The cause of death has yet to be confirmed at an inquest, but his death certificate lists it as "human variant CJD".

Jason's father, Ian, says he thinks his son may have become infected while working at a slaughterhouse in Bridlington, although he said he was "very fond of meat", including burgers.

Mr Keat, from Somerset, said the first sign that there was anything wrong with Jason came when he gave up all his sports and seemed to descend into a depression.

He spent hours in a chair sweating heavily and had such dramatic mood swings that he had to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act.



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