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Friday, 20 October, 2000, 16:46 GMT
CJD - will there be an epidemic?
Evidence for an epidemic
Scientists are trying to work out how many people will be affected
Scientists are trying to predict the full impact of CJD on the UK - and the likelihood of an epidemic of the disease.

The number of confirmed deaths from the new variant of CJD has been rising fairly steadily since it was first tentatively identified in the mid 1990s.

So far this year, there have been 18 confirmed deaths - with another four deaths probably due to vCJD, but not confirmed by post mortem.

This suggests a slow increase in vCJD deaths over the past five years.

However, this year also saw the lowest number of deaths from so-called "sporadic CJD" - the type not linked with BSE in cattle.

It is possible that the steadily increasing numbers of vCJD cases could be due in part to increased awareness and accuracy of diagnosis.

labwork
Scientists are working on vCJD tests for living patients
Statisticians have tried to come up with potential totals for vCJD deaths - but their results are vague to say the least.

Although researchers at Oxford's Wellcome Trust Centre could say that millions of deaths from the disease were unlikely, their closest estimate ranged from 100 deaths to 136,000 deaths.

They suggested that no more than two cases of vCJD could arise from the eating of one badly infected beef carcass.

Harder to catch

Scientists now believe that it is harder than previously thought to catch the illness simply by eating infected meat.

Data from European Union scientists in 1999 suggested that as many as 500,000 could die from the illness.

The problem that scientists are facing is lack of knowledge about the possible incubation period for vCJD infections.

At the moment, vCJD deaths and new cases are not rising spectacularly fast - the CJD Surveillance Unit knows of only seven probable cases where the patient is still alive.

However, there is no guarantee that there will not be a sudden upsurge in patients once a certainly time period is reached.

Many scientists now believe that the prions which are thought to cause spongiform infections are not quite as infectious as they had previously feared.

So instead of potentially thousands of cases arising from the consumption of just one infected beef carcass, there could be just a handful at most.

However, although strict restrictions on beef production in the UK may well be having a beneficial effect on cases in this country, in other countries, in which regulation is not so strict, and BSE is present in some herds, there may still be a higher chance of infection through beef products.

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See also:

21 May 99 | Health
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15 Sep 00 | Health
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