The rumour machine always had the school and the butcher's shop down as prime suspects but, 12 months after the last death, no one is the wiser about why a vCJD hotspot has claimed three lives in the Doncaster suburb of Armthorpe.

"I just took comfort from the fact that mine never ate burgers and it didn't change our eating much," said Sheila Tingle who, at the age of 53, belongs to that generation of late middle-aged parents in Armthorpe, Stockport, Stockton-on-Tees and other affected northern towns, where the illness has left behind a marked psychological imprint.

Mrs Tingle gave her children meat in the same way her neighbour, Sheila Roberts, fed her daughter and John Middleton his son in the Seventies. Why they, and not she, should have subsequently lost a child each to the disease is still something she has no answer to. "One of mine used to go to school with John's son, Matthew," she said. "It brings it home to you when their peers are affected but we've not changed anything since. It's not very comforting to know we're more likely to be affected here in the North."

The prim Wickett Hern Road housing development, where she and her husband, Alan, brought up children now aged 24 and 29, is still living with the ominous coincidence of the deaths, within three years, of Sarah Roberts and Matthew Parker, Mr Middleton's son.

Ms Roberts died aged 28, only two months after being diagnosed with the disease, last year. Mr Parker, who grew up a few hundred yards away and also attended Armthorpe School, lost his life to the human form of BSE at the age of 19.

A third victim, who had visited Armthorpe at weekends, was also included in the hotspot analysed by Doncaster Health Authority and the National CJD Surveillance Unit.

Locals shopped at the same stores and sent their children to the same schools but there were no answers.

Dr David Radford of the Doncaster Health Authority said yesterday: "We were trying to trace food histories from 20 years ago and it was very difficult with a small number of cases. With all these things you are sitting around waiting for new cases. We don't understand the epidemiology and don't know where we are on the epidemiological scale."

The lack of answers came as a bitter blow to Sheila Roberts, who telephoned John Middleton almost daily in an attempt to establish a link between their children's deaths. Both victims attended the same school between 1988 and 1990 but the young man would eat four burgers in a single meal while Miss Roberts shunned beef for chicken.

Mrs Roberts watched her daughter, a management consultant, regress to the age of a tiny child in a matter of nine months – suffering terror and hallucinations before dying at midnight on 14 September last year, while being cared for at home.

Three years earlier, Matthew's parents had watched their son, a trainee chef, develop the same degenerative illness.

Mr Middleton said: "It goes without saying the pain is as raw now as when he died. It doesn't get any easier."

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