Japan fights spread of mad cow disease

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Japan announced new measures yesterday to prevent the spread of mad cow disease, as a Tokyo hospital tested a teen-age girl for the human form of the brain-wasting disease.

In an attempt to allay growing public fears and combat a slump in beef sales, the Japanese government announced that every cow destined for the dinner table would be screened for the disease.

Tsutomu Takebe, the Agriculture Minister, told a news conference in Sakaguchi: "We have established a system under which only safe beef will be sold in the market. It will be the safest meat in the world." Consumers have shunned beef since Japan's first case of BSE – the first in Asia – was found in a Holstein dairy cow on a farm near Tokyo last month.

The Kyodo news agency said the teenage girl suspected of having Creuztfeldt-Jakob disease was taken to a neurology hospital with convulsions during the summer, but was transferred to a general hospital after displaying signs similar to those of CJD patients – staggering, memory loss and dementia.

Hisashi Miyazaki, a spokesman for the Health Ministry, said: "It was agreed that it was necessary to monitor the patient's progress."

But he said a diagnosis of the disease would not be available for six months.

This is not the first time that CJD has been in the spotlight in Japan. In December 1997, a criminal suit was filed alleging that patients had contracted CJD through the use of contaminated membrane.

In Europe, more than 100 people have contracted the human form of CJD, and cases in Britain went up by a fifth last year.

The human form of BSE is known as variant CJD – as with the classic form of the disease it attacks the brain, but unlike classic CJD it is generally prevalent in the young.