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The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"The death of an elderly person throws a whole new dimension to the disease"
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Neuropathologist, Professor James Lowe
"If we don't look we will run the risk of missing an emerging epidemic"
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Saturday, 28 October, 2000, 02:08 GMT 03:08 UK
Fears over CJD risk to elderly
Elderly people
The elderly could be more at risk than previously thought
Estimates of the scale of a possible CJD epidemic are being reassessed, following the death of a 74-year-old man from the disease.

Until now, all the known victims of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) - the human form of "mad cow" disease - have been aged between 12 and 55.

Scientists from the National CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh confirmed the man, who died last year and is believed to have been from North Yorkshire, was suffering from the brain disease.

His death has triggered questions over whether a larger section of society than initially thought could be vulnerable to the disease.

The disease was not diagnosed before the man's death, and there is growing concern that other cases of vCJD among the elderly may be going undetected.

We'd been somewhat misguided by the considerable clustering of the cases in the younger age groups

Professor Roy Anderson
The symptoms of vCJD are similar to those of dementia, and the post mortem tissue analysis required to diagnose CJD has not been carried out with elderly people.

Government adviser Professor Roy Anderson said the death of an older man had triggered a rethink about the size of a possible epidemic.

He told The Independent newspaper: "We're trying to redo the analysis at the moment because we'd been somewhat misguided by the considerable clustering of the cases in the younger age groups.

"This one case somewhat changes that view so we are in the process of taking into account the rise of the numbers in the light of a considerably broader age range."

Since the first cases of the disease were confirmed in 1995, the number of victims has been rising steadily. This latest case brings the total number to 85.

Previous studies had suggested that younger people were either more vulnerable to vCJD infection, or had suffered greater exposure to meat infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy during the 1980s.

Donnamarie McGivern with her aunt
Teenager Donnamarie McGivern died of vCJD last year
It is still not known how long the disease can incubate in humans and diagnosis can only be confirmed after death.

Computer predictions by Professor Anderson's team had suggested that around 6,000 people had been infected between 1980 and 1996.

But if the incubation period was as long as 60 years, that figure could increase to around 130,000.

Next week, Health Secretary Alan Milburn will meet victims' families to discuss compensation packages, following Lord Phillips' report into the handling of the BSE affair.

He will also announce a 1m payment to the surveillance unit in Edinburgh, to "kickstart" a national fund for the care of victims.

This will pay for equipment and care packages for patients, with a new national network of experts across the country to support health and social workers caring for sufferers.

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See also:

25 Oct 00 | Scotland
Blair sees CJD victim's suffering
26 Oct 00 | Health
1m care package for vCJD victims
02 Oct 00 | Scotland
BSE crisis sparks father's anger
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