Britain may harbour CJD timebomb, says professor

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Britain could still be heading for a hidden iceberg of the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (v-CJD) disease, caused by eating BSE-infected beef in the 1980s. The trouble is, nobody knows for sure - and nobody knows how many years it will be before the all-clear can be sounded, if it ever is.

Britain could still be heading for a hidden iceberg of the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (v-CJD) disease, caused by eating BSE-infected beef in the 1980s. The trouble is, nobody knows for sure - and nobody knows how many years it will be before the all-clear can be sounded, if it ever is.

The Government will announce by summer if it will replace steel surgical instruments with disposable ones to minimise the risk of transmission.

Although early results from a study of 3,000 appendixes and tonsils stored at hospitals in Scotland and south-west England have been encouraging, with no "incubating" cases of v-CJD uncovered, health chiefs are still worried because the scale of infection is unknown.

"The estimates of the number who will eventually develop v-CJD ranges from hundreds to several hundred thousand," said Professor Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, yesterday. "There is no change in that from this study."

Professor John Collinge, who is carrying out a similar study on tonsils, added: "This study could only give us a warning of something imminent brewing - but it is such a small number of samples that a negative doesn't really give us any reassurance at all." He thinks many more people could die decades from now, because the v-CJD can incubate for up to 30 years. Since 1995, 53 people have died from the incurable disease.

Meanwhile the Department of Health is considering what action to take over surgery. It has already minimised the risk of transmitting v-CJD by blood donation, by removing white blood cells from donated blood and sourcing blood products from outside the UK.

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