As if a cluster of deaths from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease were not misfortune enough for the Leicestershire village of Queniborough, yesterday it had salt rubbed into its wounds.

As if a cluster of deaths from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease were not misfortune enough for the Leicestershire village of Queniborough, yesterday it had salt rubbed into its wounds.

On the day the six-volume report of the two-year, £16m investigation of "mad-cow" disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was handed to the Government, details of another young victim with links to the village surfaced, full of miserable ironies.

Christopher Reeve, 24, who was brought up in the village of Rearsby, two miles from Queniborough, became the fourth local and fifth person in the county to have lost his life to the human form of BSE. He will be remembered precisely for his love of the creatures that killed him. Since the age of 12 he had bunked off school to help breed cattle at Barrowcliffe farm in the village.

When he became a farmhand there at the age of 14, the farmer's wife, Hazel Rayns, gently shooed him off to college three days a week. "It was no good," she recalled, gazing vacantly at a picture of him in flat cap and check shirt which sits in her kitchen. "He was a wonderful cattle breeder. It was all he was interested in." It had been four years since his departure, to drive tractors in Nottingham, when Mrs Rayns saw him last Christmas. "He was numb in his face and down one side," she said. "His mother thought it was some kind of stroke and I thought it was MS."

The other locals who were victims of the new variant-CJD were Stacey Robinson, 19, Pamela Bayliss, 24, and Glen Day, 35. They died within 12 weeks of each other in 1998.

Their contemporaries ought to be the most worried people in Queniborough but they are not. The parents of those apparently most at risk are doing the fretting.

When most of the village's 1,800 people packed the hall for a public meeting with the Leicestershire health authority four weeks ago, it was this generation which demanded the wider distribution of a survey of local eating, lifestyle and shopping habits, issued as part of an investigation.

"The generation possibly at risk is more mobile and their parents feel the survey should not be confined to the village," said Chris Davis, the local primary-school head teacher, who was asked to distribute the survey because the health authority wanted to reach his pupils' parents.

Rosemary Smith, parish councillor, former village butcher's daughter and mother of a young woman in the affected generation, tried to be level- headed. "Yes, meat was on the menu at our dinner table but there's nothing we can do about it now," she said.

Christopher Reeve was part of Mrs Smith's daily routine. She'd see him each morning at 8.30, puttering off to the farm on his moped a she walked her dog.

"It's certainly brought things home," she said. "On the day after his death there was also graffiti on the church-hall fence - it just read 'CJD'. We all think it was some of his friends who were angry and hitting out."

A welter of contradictory theories has not helped matters. It has emerged that a knackers' yard at Wigston, eight miles away, sold meat unfit for human consumption in the early 1980s. Two meat traders were convicted in 1982 of buying unapproved meat from the place and selling it on in the south of England. Documents relating to that case have been seized by the health authority.

"Who knows where the meat from that yard went?" said former farm worker Bob Pendleton, who also has theories about the use of vaccines with material from UK-source cattle.

Other locals agree with Robert Will, director of Edinburgh's CJD Surveillance Centre, who says meat in baby food and school canteens may be a cause.

Leicestershire Health Authority has ruled out baby food and school dinners, because at least one victim did not consume them and it is seeking a link between all five of the county's cases.

No clues will emerge until mid-November, when the first results of the authority's investigation are expected.

But even these may be inconclusive. "Those who are possibly at risk aren't really panicking," said Mr Davis. "They know it's out of their hands."

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