'Ministers told us beef was safe. Now I blame myself'

Case study: Zoe Jeffries
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Zoe Jeffries is 14 years old and her mother is watching her die of vCJD. No one knows how long she has left but already she has been reduced to an oblivious, deteriorating, sedated shell.

Zoe Jeffries is 14 years old and her mother is watching her die of vCJD. No one knows how long she has left but already she has been reduced to an oblivious, deteriorating, sedated shell.

Her mother, Helen, 38, blames herself, because she bought cheap beefburgers for her daughter from a supermarket in Wigan. She said: "I can't remember the makes I bought but they were the cheapest ones. Zoe ate them probably three times a week from the age of two and a half until she was five. It was what she liked to eat."

But at least Zoe's family know what is wrong with her. For a year she struggled without a diagnosis, her mother wrongly believing she had myalgic encephalitis as a reaction to the death of her father, Derek, who died of a heart attack aged 38 in 1998.

Mrs Jeffries recalled: "The psychiatrists just would not listen to me. Zoe didn't know anything: where she was. Her walking wasn't right - she had to hold her hands out to balance." Eventually Mrs Jeffries's disillusionment with doctors led her to miss appointments on Zoe's behalf and spend the time instead with medical books in her library.

Zoe got worse and permanently took on the outward appearance of being drunk. Finally, she was referred to a neurosurgeon in Manchester and got an appointment inMarch. Mrs Jeffries said: "I think the doctor knew straight away and said he would send the tests to Edinburgh. I didn't realise then the CJD experts were based there." A week later she learnt the truth but decided not to tell Zoe.

"It was so hard. I didn't want to get upset in front of her. I told her 'There's something a little bit wrong with your brain'. I kept wondering if they had made a mistake. It was something for me to cling on to."

Zoe began to fall out of bed. Now she has a special one with high sides in the family living room, where she is surrounded by her sisters, who stroke her hair or face as they watch television. Her mother no longer knows if Zoe understands anything.

Mrs Jeffries said: "Ministers... told us eating beef was safe... They didn't know it was safe, yet they were telling us it was. If they had said there was any risk I would have stopped eating it years ago." The family is now vegetarian.

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