School meals linked to CJD deaths

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Infected baby food and school meals have helped to cause the human equivalent of BSE, Britain's top watchdog on the disease fears.

Infected baby food and school meals have helped to cause the human equivalent of BSE, Britain's top watchdog on the disease fears.

Dr Robert Will, director of the government's CJD surveillance unit, believes that those foods may be responsible for the alarmingly high proportion of young people among those dying from the incurable illness, which now appears to be increasing sharply.

He was speaking to The Independent on Sunday as ministers launched an investigation into a cluster of four cases of the disease - including two teenagers - in three villages north of Leicester. The government's scientific advisory panel will discuss the cluster tomorrow.

Dr Will believes one of the greatest mysteries of the disease is why "new variant CJD", the human BSE, disproportionally hits young people.

The youngest two victims first showed symptoms at the age of 14, and many others were also teenagers. Stacey Robinson, 19, and an unnamed 19-year-old man are among those who have died in the cluster centred on the Leicestershire village of Queniborough.

Conventional CJD rarely strikes people under 50, and most victims are in their 60s.

Dr Will said one explanation of new variant CJD in the young could lie in the amount of mechanically extracted meat in the food of babies and children in the 1980s.

Dr Will said that it "could have contained remnants of the spinal cord", one of the parts of a cow which becomes most highly infected when the animal develops BSE.

"Foodstuffs which contained that material could be particularly dangerous," he said. "One possible explanation for the age distribution is that young people tend to eat these products more than the adult population."

Mechanically recovered meat was widely used in baby foods and was likely to have been common in school meals. "It was used in the cheapest products," he added. Sausages, pies, burgers, patés and some ready-cooked meals - as well as infant foods - were particularly likely to contain it.

Dr Will stressed that he had no proof that this explained the toll among young people. Other explanations could be that children absorbed the prion that carries the disease more than adults, or that it affected their cells more.

Dr Erik Millstone, senior lecturer at Sussex University's science policy research unit and an expert on food policy, said "one very plausible explanation" of the higher rates of the disease among young people lay in the food given to babies and young children. Another cause might be that young people were more vulnerable to infection. He thought that both factors were probably involved.

The investigation into the Leicestershire cluster - by Dr Will's unit, the Public Health Laboratory Service, London School of Tropical Hygiene, Leicestershire Health Authority, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food - is focusing on local abattoirs and their slaughtering practices.

Last week Dr Will's unit disclosed that 67 Britons are now thought to have caught the disease from infected beef, an increase of 25 on a year ago.