Fears of BSE link with sick abattoir worker raises fears of BSE link

Beef alert: Ailing victim of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease may have only a few months to live
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The Independent Online

Science Correspondent

A former abattoir worker is returning home from hospital after being diagnosed as having Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). The man, who is in his early fifties, will spend Christmas with his family, following tests carried out at York District Hospital.

The case has aroused the interest of the Medical Research Council's CJD Surveillance Unit, based in Edinburgh, which is collating figures to help determine whether it is possible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), "mad cow disease", to be passed to humans, causing CJD.

However, a doctor at the hospital emphasised that the case is reckoned to be the first in the area since 1985. "Statistically, we would have expected two since then," said Dr Ray Marks, executive medical director for the hospital's trust.

The Department of Health also said that the number of confirmed deaths from CJD to the end of November this year was just 29. This compares with 55 for 1994.

The York man is understood to have been a full-time abattoir worker. Dr Marks said that the man is now showing signs of dementia, and that CJD is "the only diagnosis left". The prognosis is not good: "He probably only has months to live if our diagnosis is correct." The man, who will be readmitted to the hospital after Christmas, was examined earlier this week by Robert Will, head of the Edinburgh surveillance unit.

The past month has seen heightened fears that people who have eaten beef from cows infected with BSE or who have been in contact with infected cattle might be especially at risk of developing CJD.

There is no evidence that this can occur. But a number of scientists have commented on the statistical improbability of six recent cases of CJD in the United Kingdom - four involving dairy farmers, and two involving teenagers. Analysis by Sheila Gore of the MRC's Biostatistics Unit in Cambridge put the chance of this at 1 in 10,000. She said in November that this "signals an epidemiological alert" which required investigation.

The latest case is thought to be the first involving an abattoir worker. Such people might be at risk if BSE could pass to humans because the disease is especially concentrated in the brain and spinal cord. Although the head is removed in one piece, workers have often used water-cooled circular saws to remove the spine - creating what one scientist calls "a fine haze of grey matter" which might be highly infectious.

However, people who develop the disease often do so after the age of 50, according to research data from a number of countries. And CJD is also found in countries which do not have BSE. In some countries, the disease occurs more frequently than the one per million per year that is the average in the UK.