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Will the Panic over Mad Cow Disease in Europe Affect the US?

Mad cow panic is gripping Europe causing beef sales drop off by as much as 50% in some countries. Our health correspondent Dr. Emly Senay is here to tell us what's going on in Europe and what affect it could have on the US.

From the time it was first discovered in the mid 1980s until today, nearly 200,000 cases of mad cow disease--bovine spongiform ensephalapathy (bse)--have been reported in cattle. Health officials believe mad cow led to 80 human deaths in Great Britain. Until now, continental Europeans believed the devastating illness was only limited to the Britain.

Germany, Spain, and Portugal have recently found infected cows. Reports of the disease in herds in France have tripled and two human deaths were recently reported there. The ensuing panic has led to a plummet in beef sales, and outright bans of French beef in some European union countries. Fears in France were also fueled by a documentary showing a French boy wasting away from the human equivalent of mad cow disease.

To prevent transmission to humans, and alleviate some of the terror that's swept the continent, the European Union has just placed a ban on meat based animal feed, believed to be the source of the problem.

What causes this? How did the problem first begin?

The problem is believed to have first started in Britain when cattle were fed essentially the waste products from other ruminants--cows, sheep, and goats. This included brains, bone meal and nervous system organs. It was here that an infectious agent called a prion was believed to be transmitted to healthy cows thus passing on the disease which results in the symptoms of neurological decline we are all familiar with, similar to the effects on sufferers of the human equivalent of the disease.





Can this happen in the US?

Theoretically, yes. But government health officials tell us that they thought it very unlikely that the disease will develop in the US. Much has been done here to prevent it from happening, all evidently good measures because not a single cow in this country has been found to have mad cow disease. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is looking at nearly 12,000 cows that might have the disease, and all have tested negative. However, other animals not bred for human consumption have been found to have versions of the disease in the US, such as deer, and a variation of that disease has been reported in a few game-eating humans in the US.

While public officials are adamant that our beef is safe, there are many agriculturists who think it's just a matter of time before mad cow disease starts turning up here. Hopefully we'll have learned something from the Europeans abut prevention and treatment if it does get to the US.

There are NO reported cases of the new variant of creutzfeld-jacob disease, the medical name for the human equivalent of mad cow. (The disease is slightly different and has different names in humans and bovines) that is limited so far to only Britain and France. But creutzfeld-jakob exists in this country in a different form, occurring mostly in older people with slightly different effects. The cases in Europe were found mostly in younger people.

What is being done or prevent the problem from coming to the US?

In 1989, the USDA banned the import of beef or cows from countries where bse exists. Since 1997, the use of most animal proteins in feed for cows, goats, and sheep is banned.

There are quite a few public health experts who don't think the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is doing enugh and that it's nearly impossible to know if individual farmers are feeding infectious proteins to their herds, but it is much less likely since the ban was put in place.





Should Americans travelling abroad worry about mad cow?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alerts Americans of the dangers and recommends that if tourists wish to completely eliminate risk, not eat beef, especially sausages or ground beef. However, the CDC notes that despite the panic in Europe, the chance of humans getting the disease either abroad or here at home is still extremely rare.

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