THE BSE RISK: Scientist fears children could set off epidemic

THE EXPERTS
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The Independent Online
Scientists studying Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in the field are still deeply divided about whether BSE can be transmitted to humans, and about the potentially terrifying consequences for the population.

"It's too late for adults, but children should not be fed beef. It is as simple as that," said Stephen Dealler, consultant medical microbiologist at Burnley General Hospital, who has studied the epidemic nature of BSE and its human form, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, since 1988.

He believes that the infectious agent would incubate in children and lead to an epidemic sometime in the next decade.

"Any epidemic in humans would start about 15 years after that in cattle, and about 250,000 BSE-infected cows were eaten in 1990. There could be an epidemic of this new form in the year 2005. These 10 cases were probably infected sometime before the BSE epidemic started."

His worst case scenario, assuming a high level of infection, would be 10 million people struck down by CJD by 2010. He thought it was now "too late" to assume the most optimistic scenario of only about 100 cases.

But Professor John Bourne, who heads the Medical Research Council's neuropathogenesis unit, accepted that while there might be risks through eating beef, they were at worst minimal.

"No scientist working in this area has ever said that there is no risk," he said yesterday. "We just don't know what the facts are. The whole point of setting up the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh was to look for this sort of evidence. If it is found, it can't be ignored."

Professor John Pattison, chairman of the Government's expert committee on spongiform encephalopathies, warned that the next 12 months would be crucial in determining if the United Kingdom is threatened with an epidemic of CJD.

He said he wanted doctors to report suspected cases as early as possible to the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh. "We don't have enough information to make any predictions. A new type of CJD is the most probable explanation, but we haven't proved it."

Professor Bourne added that experiments now in progress at the Medical research Council unit in Edinburgh, to test whether recent cases of CJD in farmers were due to BSE, would not produce even preliminary results before August.

"But I am not aware of any piece of evidence that has been suppressed. And I have no reason to believe that beef - as in cuts of meat - is anything other than safe. And yes, I would allow my grandchildren to eat beef."

However, Professor Richard Lacey, a microbiologist who has warned of the danger to humans of mad cow disease for the past six years, said he estimated that there will be "between 5,000 and half a million people a year affected by the year 2010 - 2015.

"There is an incubation period of between 10 to 50 years in humans. We didn't actually see the number of cases of BSE rise in cattle until the late 80s."

Prof Lacey gave up eating beef in 1989, and accuses the Government of putting the financial interests of farmers ahead of public health.

"The Government has been deliberately risking the health of the population for a decade. The reason it didn't take action was that it would be expensive and damaging politically, particularly to the farming community who are their supporters."

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