After the hype, the scientists' verdict: CJD to kill hundreds

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The Independent Online
Government scientists are predicting that hundreds of Britons will die every year from CJD caused by eating BSE-infected food - with the peak occurring in about seven years' time.

People who ate a lot of hamburgers in the late Eighties are believed to be most at risk, The Independent can reveal.

The predicted number of deaths is much lower than forecast by some scientists when the possibility of a link between Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and ``mad cow disease'' was first suggested a year ago. But it is also far higher than suggested by the reassuring words from politicians and officials in the decade since BSE was first identified.

The new estimates are contained in a paper submitted by members of the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh to the Lancet medical journal for publication. It contains new calculations by them based on the 14 "new variant" cases of the brain disorder (CJD) recorded so far in the UK.

Dr James Ironside, one of the co-authors, said yesterday: "Thankfully, this is not the doomsday scenario that some have predicted, where the British population is decimated. That doesn't seem to be on the cards. It looks as though the total number of cases over the whole course of the disease will be in the hundreds, rather than thousands."

But the human toll will be high. The "new variant" CJD has mostly affected people under 40, including a number of teenagers. It is incurable, and the symptoms, which take two years to develop, include depression and failing coordination, followed by dementia and coma leading to death.

People who were on tight budgets in the Eighties are particularly at risk, as they would have been more dependent on cheap foodstuffs - especially hamburgers and meals containing "mechanically recovered meat", made by stripping the heads and spines of cattle.

No one yet knows whether a single infected hamburger could carry a fatal dose. Scientists are divided on the issue. But all agree that eating more infected food would make you more likely to develop the disease.

The scientists' new calculation destroys forever the Government's assertion, repeated since BSE's identification in 1986 until last March, that BSE posed "no risk to human health". It could also have political repercussions in the EU if the number of "variant" CJD cases keeps rising after the European ban on British beef is lifted.

However, such a rise in the number of British victims is inevitable because of the disease's long incubation period - estimated to be 15 years on average. The Edinburgh team's calculations suggest that the number of cases, which has doubled in each of the past two years, will rise gradually and reach a peak in 2003.

The figure of 15 years is comparable to the time for the disease to show up when people have accidentally eaten or been injected with CJD infected material, as occurred in the UK when people were given human growth hormone injections. The team also assumes that the risk of eating BSE- infected food peaked around 1988 and 1989, when the number of cattle incubating BSE but showing no signs of it was highest, and the most infective parts of cattle - such as the brain and spinal cord - were still being used in human food.

An independent team at Oxford University calculated in September that 446,000 BSE- infected cattle were used for human food before the highly infective materials were banned from food at the end of 1989.

The 14 victims so far seem to be an "unlucky few" who became ill more quickly than usual, said Dr Ironside. Studies suggest they ate more hamburgers than people who have died of "normal" CJD. However, Dr Ironside said this could simply be a cultural, rather than causative difference as the normal form of CJD usually affects people over 60. "The question is still: why these 14?" he added.

The Department of Health said: "We think it is too early to make any predictions at this stage, and we have not seen the paper. We await its publication."

Sandra Galloway, who set up the CJD Victims Support Group, said: "The Government has finally recognised us, and recently gave us pounds 50,000 to do our work. It looks as if, if this happens, we're going to need all the help available." The biggest problem, she said, would be to provide the nursing care that CJD patients would require.

More than 907,000 cattle have been slaughtered so far under the programme to curb BSE, Tony Baldry, agriculture minister, said last night. The carcasses of 177,586 were being held in cold storage.