Mad cow legacy will last into next century

One year on from government's BSE announcement, nobody knows how many will die
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The Independent Online
The legacy of mad cow disease will last far longer than the disease itself. While the number of cases of bovine spongiform encepalopathy (BSE) is falling rapidly, the political, medical economic and legal ramifications will follow us into the next century.

It is a year tomorrow that Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, said the Government recognised a link between exposure to the agent that causes bovine spongiform encepalopathy (BSE) in cows and a variant of the fatal brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) in humans.

At that time, there were 10 confirmed cases of v-CJD, as doctors now refer to it. It was unknown before 1994.

Now there are 17 definite and probable cases, according to the support network set up by victims' families. The possibility remains that thousands will eventually die of it, according to Professor John Pattison, the scientist who chairs of Seac, the Government's advisory committee on BSE and CJD.

The problem is that nobody knows how many people have been exposed to how much of the infective agent, nor how long it takes to incubate before causing clinical symptoms.

Estimates vary from 15 years upwards. Precautions taken since last March have reduced the risk that BSE-infected products could enter the human food supply but scientists still argue about how infective meat or other tissues could be.

The certainty is that the number of cows with the disease is tailing off. Last year, there were only 7,709 confirmed cases in the UK, less than 0.1 per cent of the national herd, and this year there have been 177, so far. At the peak in 1992, there were almost 37,000 confirmed cases. In total, more than 166,000 BSE-infected cattle have been slaughtered.

But the economic effect lingers. Britain's pounds 500m beef export market is still moribund, as it has been since 27 March last year, when the European Commission banned exports, fearful of the effect of BSE on world markets.

John Major's "beef war" of non-cooperation with the EC last summer was short-lived. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) now says it has complied with the EC's requirements for the lifting of the ban, introducing a cull of cattle and new inspection and certification of herds and meat, but does not know when the Commission ban will be lifted.

The EC shows no signs of hurrying. Several countries on the Continent are facing their own BSE fears, with suggestions that France and Germany have covered up cases. The deaths of two people in France and one in Germany of suspected v-CJD has added to these worries.

But even when the ban is lifted, Britain's herds have been decimated, and exporters will have to break into markets that have been taken over by rivals.

At home, the political effect has been immense. Mr Major lost face over his about-turn. Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, has been pummelled over his department's failure to stamp out BSE. The issue has widened Tory divisions on Europe.

More importantly, the fallout from BSE has enraged farmers and will cost the Tories important votes in constituencies they once relied on. Some farmers are prepared to break the habit of a lifetime and not vote Conservative in the coming election, especially in the West Country.

The permanent losers are the families and relatives of those who have had, or will have, v-CJD. It affects young people and is always fatal.

The prospects for treatment are minimal. Scientists are still unsure whether the disease is caused by a misshapen protein, the "prion" hypothesis, or a related effect which causes the protein to accumulate in insoluble plaques in the brain.

Professor John Collinge, who last year demonstrated that the molecular "signature" of the plaques of BSE and v-CJD is almost identical, believes a therapy is at least 10 years away.

Letters, page 17