Clare Louise Tomkins, who is now being cared for at home by her parents, was diagnosed as having "v-CJD" this week by Professor John Collinge, an acknowledged expert in the field, after tissue tests at St Mary's Hospital in London. There have been 25 reported cases in Britain since this form of the disease was first identified in 1995, though the Government has only confirmed 21 so far.
It also enlarges an apparent "cluster" of v-CJD cases around Ashford, Kent, where the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad cow disease", was diagnosed in 1985. So far, four v-CJD victims have lived near Ashford. Tonbridge is about 25 miles away, and Miss Tomkins has lived there all her life, though she never worked on a farm.
Furthermore, her strict vegetarianism - inspired, her father said last night, by her love of animals - means that if she caught it by eating BSE-infected food, she was infected by eating contaminated food even before the disease had been formally identified. That, in turn, could mean that many more people may be infected than was thought. Her father, Roger, said yesterday: "When we told doctors she had been a vegetarian since 1985, there were a few raised eyebrows. They were very, very surprised. They are in no doubt that she caught CJD from mechanically-recovered food eaten before 1985."
He told The Independent: "It is absolutely tragic. She's just turned 24. Our first knowledge about it was about October last year. She had lost a stone in weight. Her fiance also told us that, for six months before that, her will to socialise had reduced."
Before becoming vegetarian, he said, "she just ate family food - from the supermarket or butchers. Just normal, average foods." She had not been a particularly heavy eater of meat. He noted that Clare was so strict that she would not eat foods containing gelatin or animal fats.
To date, about 161,000 BSE cases have been diagnosed, but an estimated 1 million BSE- infected cows have entered the food chain since 1985. Since 1989, the most infectious parts of cattle - such as the brains and spinal cord - have been banned from human consumption.
Clare is in the advanced stages of the disease, being fed through a tube direct into her stomach, and needs 24-hour nursing at her home. "A year ago she was looking forward to getting married and now she is slowly dying," said her mother yesterday.