Vegetarian CJD victim raises fears of `time bomb'

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The latest victim of the fatal "new variant" Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (v-CJD) probably caught it from food infected with mad cow disease at a time when the disease was "underground" in the food supply, and 10 times less widespread than in the late Eighties. On that basis, there could be a rapid growth over the next 5-10 years in the number of v-CJD cases, with numbers rising steeply in proportion to that of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) - which grew from the first case in 1985 to a peak of 36,681 in 1992.

Roger Tomkins, whose daughter Clare, 24, is in the final stages of the incurable brain disorder, added that Britain could be "sitting on a time bomb" of v-CJD caused by eating meals infected with BSE. Ms Tomkins has been a strict vegetarian since 1985 - when the first case of BSE was identified on a farm about 25 miles from her home in Tonbridge, Kent. Her case indicates that v-CJD can have an incubation period of at least 11 years.

Professor Roy Anderson of the zoology department at the University of Oxford has studied the BSE epidemic, in which 161,000 cases have been confirmed in Britain since 1985. He calculates that 446,000 infected animals were used in the food supply to the end of 1989, when the most infectious parts of the animals - the brains and spinal cords - were banned, and another 283,000 between 1989 and 1996.

Ms Tomkins is the 25th known v-CJD victim in Britain. In 1995 there were three deaths, in 1996 ten, and 1997 looks set to double last year's figure. If all the cases so far originate from before 1985, the next few years could see a rapid jump.