Disease that baffles scientists

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The Independent Online
What is the BSE inquiry?

It is meant to uncover the history of the events that led to the government announcement on 20 March 1996 of a possible link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle and Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (CJD) in humans.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir Nicholas Phillips, is not designed to accuse people of professional failings but to ''reach conclusions on the adequacy of the response, taking into account knowledge at the time'' and report this to ministers, sometime next year.

What have we learnt so far?

Families affected by CJD, doctors, scientists, industry, government officials (and soon ministers) have all given descriptions of their role in the BSE story. What has emerged is a complex tale which is always better told with the benefit of hindsight. The single most important message is that when a politician said it was "safe" to eat beef this did not mean there was "no risk".

What do we not know?

Scientists are still in the dark about the eventual scale of the new CJD epidemic. So far it has affected fewer than 30 people but if the incubation period between exposure to BSE and the first symptoms is similar to other spongiform encephalopathies - namely kuru, which incubates for up to 30 years - the final epidemic could be much higher. We still do not know precisely what causes BSE/CJD, nor is there a working test for it. Science is still unable to pinpoint the precise reason why BSE appeared in the first place, although feeding dead cattle to cows undoubtedly played a role in amplifying the epidemic.

Where do we go from here?

Surveillance of new cases of CJD will continue in an attempt to detect any signs that the outbreak is beginning to accelerate into a full-scale epidemic as well as investigating any common links between the victims to explain why some people succumb rather than others. The BSE epidemic appears to be dying out but the Government would also like to eradicate scrapie in sheep, which is thought by some scientists to be the spark which caused BSE. There is still concern that BSE might have spread back into sheep.

Is beef safe to eat?

Britain has the most stringent safeguards in the world to protect cattle and the public from BSE. Any risks there might be pale into insignificance compared with other risks of dying that people are exposed to every day. It is fair to say that eating beef on the Continent - where BSE rules are not as stringent as in the UK - can in theory carry more risks than eating British beef.