In the first report in a three-part series, CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports on efforts to build a U.S. firewall against this deadly disease, hoping to learn from Europe's mistakes. More than 80 people have died, mostly in Britain, with a few in France, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. And more than 180,000 infected animals have been reported in Britain.
Four years ago in England, Pamela Beyless wore the blank human face of mad cow disease. Her father, Arthur, recalls her regression from confusion, to loss of balance, to total disability.
"She couldn't blink her own eyes."
At the time, the British government played down the mad cow scare. The beef was safe, it said. That's why Arthur Beyless couldn't connect stumbling cows to the brain eating disease afflicting his daughter.
"Pamela was still Pamela inside, just locked in a body that was destroying her," recalls Arthur. (Click here to watch the hospital home video tape of Pamela Beyless)
Scientists think the human form of mad cow is contracted by eating tainted beef, and cows get it by eating feed containing the remains of infected cattle. That tainted feed was exported from Great Britain to Western Europe, where the disease spread.
Under the U.S. system, any cow showing signs of brain disease gets reported; most get destroyed and their brains are sent to the USDA lab. They've checked 12,000 brains. Zero mad cow.
"We have done over a decade of preventive activities, a decade of surveillance with no evidence of the disease, " boasts Detwiler.
Dr. Leon Smith is an expert at diagnosing infectious disease and is more worried about humans than cows. "I think it will be an absolute miracle if we don't have any cases in this country," he says.
Smith points out sience doesn't know exactly what part of the cow harbors mad cow disease and his concerns are not just for edible beef, but English beef by-products like cosmetics and vaccines. "Theoretically it can be in gelatin, bovine serum and other products."
When asked if he meant that they can rule it out when he said theoretically, Smith replied,"They can't rule this out because we have no way to test for it."
And when asked if he thought there was a chance we have it somewhere, he responded, "Oh I am sure of it.
Despite all the effort to erect an American firewall against mad cow, there are holes in the wall and one of them is cattle feed. Here's why: to protect U.S. cattle from eating tainted feed, there is supposed to be a label warning farmers when feed contains by-products of animals susceptible to mad cow.
That system is broken.
Just last week 12,000 cattle were isolated in Texas, when Purina announced it mistakenly put cow remains in batch of cattle feed. The FDA recently reported more than 700 feed makers were not labeling prohibited material.
Dr. Stephen Sundlof of the FDA was asked if that level of compliance acceptable to him. "No it's not," he replied.
Dr. Sundlof, who is the official in charge of protecting feed, says all 700 feed makers are being re-inspected and there have been five recalls of cattle feed. He says, "We can't say for certain that some of this has not been fed to other cattle. That concerns us."
As of today, the infectious agent that actually causes mad cow has never been found in American cows or people. The beef is safe, the risk of infection small. But be vigilant, says Arthur Beyless back in England. He's heard most of that before.
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