Animals raise new fear on spread of CJD

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Water companies denied yesterday that supplies in Kent could have become contaminated with "mad cow disease" and thus led to a cluster of the deadly new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, v-CJD, in Ashford. Meanwhile, evidence from zoo animals may be encouraging for the size of the eventual human death toll.

Members of the Water Companies Association met urgently yesterday after claims by a former contractor at a rendering mill in Godmersham that he had seen liquid waste from cattle processing being poured down a well which leads to an aquifer. There was concern because five of the 26 v- CJD cases identified since 1994 have occurred within a 25 mile radius of the plant.

But yesterday, Mid Kent Water and the WCA insisted that there was no such link and that even if such waste had been poured down the well, it would have taken two years to reach the nearest aquifer, and that what's more, four of the five cases live in areas served by other water companies.

WCA chief executive Pamela Taylor said "Customers can have complete confidence that their tap water is safe. This scare linking CJD and water supplies is based on nothing but a series of `what ifs'."

Yesterday's meeting follows a warnings from the University of Kentucky that five cases of CJD in middle aged and elderly people could be linked to a regular diet of eating squirrel brains, a widely consumed delicacy in the southern United States. Scientists increasingly believe that v- CJD, which is incurable and fatal, is caused by exposure to the infective agent for bovine spongiform encepalopathy (BSE), or "mad cow disease". The first case of BSE was identified in 1985 on a farm near Ashford, though it is believed that many hundreds of cases existed before then without showing symptoms.

The cases now coming to light may date back to infection in the early 1980s. Between 1985 and 1989, the year when the most infectious parts of cattle - the heads and spinal cord - were banned from human food, the number of BSE cases each year leapt from one to 7,137, peaking in 1993 at 6,714. The cause was believed to be infected feed.

There is encouraging news, though, from zoos. Zoo animals often ate this same feed - either the food pellets also fed to cows, or raw cattle meat including the spines. In 1986 a kudu at London Zoo fell ill with a BSE- like disease. Subsequently nine other hoofed species, including eland, nyala, gemsbok, Arabian oryx and bison, and cat species including cheetahs, puma, and ocelot have fallen ill.

But out of many thousands of caged animals, many sharing the same food and conditions, fewer than 30 have died of BSE-like diseases. This means that even though many animals were infected relatively few developed the actual disease.

"That must be looked on as encouraging," said Dr Stephen Dealler, an independent expert on BSE and CJD. But he insisted that drugs companies should start trying to develop early diagnosis tests and searching for potential treatments.