Since new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (v-CJD) first emerged in 1996, it has claimed an average of two or three lives every three months. But in the final quarter of last year nine deaths were recorded.
The increase was reported in the Lancet yesterday in a research letter from the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh.
In an editorial, the Lancet said that when a threat is posed to public health "precipitant reactions by politicians without any proper attempt either to inform themselves or the public is counterproductive". The journal added: "The outlook, from many aspects, is grim. In the UK, the BSE inquiry will almost certainly publish an anodyne report ... and conclude that no one is to blame.
"Worldwide, animal feeding practices will continue to be driven by the prospect of a quick profit and not by considerations of sound animal husbandry."
But scientists yesterday announced a step forward in understanding how CJD infects and destroys the brain. Research led by Professor John Collinge of the Imperial College School of Medicine in London into rogue prions - thought to spread CJD - could lead to better diagnostic tests and to the treatment and prevention of prion diseases.