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Health Concerns over "Mad" Cows and Sheep

Concern over "mad cow" disease prompts the U.S. government to order the slaughter of hundreds of sheep in Vermont. Our health correspondent Dr. Emily Senay is here with the details.

"Mad cow" disease was first reported in British cows in the 80’s. Years later the disease began to affect humans in Britain who had consumed contaminated meat. Though no cases of "mad cow" disease have ever been reported in this country, the U.S. government says several flocks of sheep in Vermont pose the threat of introducing the disease into the American food supply.

Vermont farmer Larry Faillace imported these sheep from Belgium in 1996 in hopes of expanding his business. But now the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants to destroy them because recent tests on some of the sheep have shown they may be affected with a brain disease similar to "mad cow."

"They like to raise their scary red flags and that's how they get this done and I can understand wanting to protect the American public but this is not the way to do it," says Larry Faillace, a farmer from Vermont.

"Mad cow" disease has never been seen in sheep except for in the laboratory. And it's possible the Vermont sheep do not have "mad cow" disease but another more common sheep brain disease called scrapie. Scrapie does not affect humans but "mad cow" disease does and is 100% fatal.

"That's why we're taking the precautions because we don't want to introduce a foreign agent," says Linda Detwiler from the USDA. "That's why the sheep were brought in under restrictions back when they were allowed in 1996. Again it's a precautionary measure."

The outbreak of "mad cow" disease that killed more than 50 people in England and led to the slaughter of more than four million cows in the 90s is believed to have occurred as a result of feeding cows the brains of infected animals. Although this practice was stopped in England and in the U.S. USDA officials are taking no chances. They fear the imported Belgian sheep may have eaten contaminated feed.

Again to emphasize there have been no cases of "mad cow" disease in cows or humans ever reported in the U.S. The Department of Agriculture maintains a surveillance program and importation of all cows and sheep from Europe has been banned. Meanwhile tests to determine what the imported sheep have will take years.

Q: Should we be concerned that any of these sheep might have been used for food?

A: No. Offspring of some of the original imported sheep were sold for food. In addition, milk products from the sheep were sold.

Q: Why will the testing take years?

A: The reason for this is that the disease must be introduced into laboratory animals and the symptoms can take years to develop. So before they can determine if the disease is the same or different from "mad cow" disease. There is no rapid test for mad cow disease.
Q: Why were the sheep imported in the first place?

A: These sheep from Belgium have a unique asset--they produce 10 times the amount of milk compared to normal sheep. So these farmers wanted to take advantage of this quality.

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