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Woman thought to have human form of mad cow disease dies

Doctors believe Charlene Singh contracted vCJD in England

By Miriam Falco

Charlene Singh, pictured in December 2003, died Sunday morning.
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

(CNN) -- Charlene Singh, the only U.S. resident thought to have the human form of mad cow disease, or variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), died Sunday morning.

In April 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health announced "the occurrence of a likely case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in a Florida resident [then] aged 22 years."

Health officials concluded the young woman contracted the disease when she lived in England. She was born there in 1979 and moved to the United States in 1992.

There is no cure for the disease.

"It's shocking and stunning," said Singh's aunt, Sharon Singh-Passley. "Her body couldn't take it anymore."

Singh, 25, died in her sleep, her aunt said.

Disease details

The first case of the human form of mad cow disease was detected in April 1996. Most cases occurred in Britain.

The British Department of Health has reported 146 definite and probable cases in its country.

France has reported six vCJD cases, and Ireland, Italy, Canada and the United States have each reported one case, said Dr. Francois Meslin of the World Health Organization.

A definitive diagnosis is not possible until after death. An autopsy is scheduled for Singh on Tuesday, her aunt said.

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is the human form of the brain-wasting disease found in cows called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). It is believed that people who consumed meat from cows infected with BSE may develop vCJD.

The disease has an incubation period of 10 to 15 years, and younger people are more prone to develop vCJD than the traditional form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the CDC reports.

The average age of vCJD patients is 29 as opposed to 65 years for CJD. Patients with vCJD are also sick longer -- an average of 14 months, compared with four and a half months for classic CJD patients.

Experimental treatment

CNN first reported Singh's story in October 2002. Doctors had told her family she would live only a few months.

Singh had been a young, vibrant woman until November 2001, her family said. That's when she began to forget things and lose her temper.

Doctors prescribed antidepressants, but her condition continued to decline. Her father, Patrick Singh, said, "her hand began to shake pretty rapidly. We decided ... this can't be depression. Depression doesn't make your hand shake. It doesn't make you walk and stumble."

Dissatisfied with the diagnosis from American physicians, Singh's mother took her to England in early 2003, where she was diagnosed with probable vCJD.

Charlene Singh is shown in this high school photo.

Singh had "received experimental treatment with quinacrine for 3 months," the CDC reported, but her condition did not improve. Her family did its best to make her comfortable.

A neurosurgeon who saw media reports about her offered and gave Singh hyperbaric treatment, pumping pure oxygen into her lungs to try to improve brain function.

Her family and the doctor felt those treatments helped her. Last year, Singh's relatives said they thought she seemed a little more relaxed and appeared to try to respond to simple commands.

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