Fears grow over rise in `new CJD' deaths

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THERE HAS been an unusually big increase in the number of deaths from the new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), scientists said yesterday.

Since 1996 there have been an average of two or three deaths every quarter, but nine were recorded in the last three months of 1998, according to the CJD Surveillance Unit.

The deaths "are a cause for concern", Simon Cousens, of the unit, said yesterday. "They are bad news rather than good news but how bad news they are is difficult to tell. We are going to have to wait another six or nine months to see what numbers of cases occurring over a period are."

The unit has seen an increase in referrals of cases of suspected CJD for post-mortem analysis but said this was mainly due to better reporting procedures taking effect. In 1997 it had 160 referrals suspected of all CJD variants but in 1998 that was down to 150. Referrals this year are said to be up on last year but only marginally, said one source.

John Collinge, a member of the government-appointed committee that advises on CJD, said: "I think it is concerning that we see more cases of new- variant CJD ... It is too early to know what that means. I am personally concerned the country may face a serious epidemic of this disease - it is entirely possible." In January the Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson, urged the Government to retain its beef-on-the-bone ban.

Current confirmed cases of nvCJD include three in 1995, ten in both 1996 and 1997 and fifteen in 1998. There has been one confirmed case this year. One of the latest suspected victims is a butcher involved in the mass cull of BSE-infected cattle. Jason Keat, 25, of Cheddar, Somerset, was struck down in July. His family believe it is linked to his work in slaughterhouses. He died on 28 February in Yorkshire. The death certificate lists the cause as human-variant CJD. An inquest is to be held at Hull coroner's court.