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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 March, 2004, 03:47 GMT
Figures show rise in vCJD deaths
BSE has baffled scientists since it was first diagnosed in 1986
The number of people dying from the human form of BSE rose last year, the Department of Health has revealed.

Eighteen people died from vCJD, compared with 17 in 2002, according to the National CJD Surveillance Unit.

Scientists said last year the worst of the infections could be over after the disease appeared to hit a high point in 2000 with 28 deaths, before falling.

There have been 139 deaths since vCJD emerged in the UK nine years ago. None has been reported so far this year.

Seven people thought to have the incurable disease are still alive.

Scientists baffled

BSE - bovine spongiform encephalopathy - has baffled scientists and veterinary surgeons since it was first diagnosed in November 1986.

The condition causes a cow's brain to degenerate and become "spongy" in appearance.

It is commonly recognised to have started when cattle were given feed made from infected animals, and led to a dramatic slump in sales of British beef.

In humans, the disease causes personality change, loss of body function, and eventually death.

According to researchers cases of vCJD have been in people with a specific genetic characteristic making them susceptible.

Some also say it is possible other individuals might be vulnerable to the disease but have longer incubation periods, so that their illness appears later.

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