Baby food theory may explain CJD deaths

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The families of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease victims called for further research yesterday after a warning that meat in baby food and school meals may be linked to deaths from the disease.

The families of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease victims called for further research yesterday after a warning that meat in baby food and school meals may be linked to deaths from the disease.

The CJD Support Network said the theory put forward by Professor Robert Will, the head of the CJD Surveillance Unit, could explain why so many young people contract the deadly variant of the disease.

Clive Evers, a spokesman for the network, which helps relatives of the victims, said: "Dr Will is not saying this is a certainty but through the research he knows about and has done he has reached the point where they have eliminated many [other] theories."

Dr Will's views were revealed by The Independent on Sunday as leading scientists on the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) prepared to meet in London today to discuss the discovery of a cluster of five vCJD cases linked to the Leicestershire village of Queniborough, which scientists believe are related.

An inquiry by the Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, local health experts and Dr Will's unit has been launched into the cause of the cluster. Two of the victims were 19, two were 24 and the fifth was 35.

Residents in the village, north of Leicester, have been asked to complete questionnaires on their diets. Ten local abattoirs are also being questioned over the techniques they used in the early 1980s.

Seac could suggest examining 10,000 tonsil and appendix samples stored by local hospitals to help uncover further data. Scientists have already tested 3,000 samples from across the UK but found no traces of vCJD.

Dr Will's theory could explain why a large proportion of the 75 vCJD victims so far detected are in their teens and 20s unlike people with other forms of the disease, who are generally in their 60s. He said it was possible that baby food and school meals which used "mechanically extracted meat" were the cause.

The Department of Health said yesterday that Dr Will's theory was well-known, and was addressed when mechanically derived meat was banned in 1989 because it could contain BSE-infected spinal cord. Its re-emergence as a theory could spark off "scare stories", a spokesman said.

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