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Mad cow disease

Scientists urge caution in 'mad cow' disease panic

March 29, 1996
Web posted at: 10:50 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Eugenia Halsey

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Some researchers are cautioning against jumping to conclusions about "mad cow" disease and its human equivalent. The human form is rare in the United States -- as it is around the world -- but devastating in its consequences.

Four months ago, Angel Balcarcel was a healthy 44-year-old raising a family in Fort Myers, Florida. But just before Christmas, his wife Connie says he began acting differently.

Angel family

"He was real tired," she said. "He was having a little bit of a problem walking, his speech was just a little slurred."

Later, he started jerking uncontrollably and falling down. Finally, he was sent to the hospital. The diagnosis: Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD), the human equivalent of 'mad cow" disease.

Balcarcel had never been Britain, where a panic over the disease has followed a report linking beef cattle infected with the bovine version with CJD. Doctors could not explain how he contracted it.


On Wednesday, he died.

"It's kind of strange that a one in a million disease ... finds you," said Connie Balcarcel.

Scientists, too, are baffled. What they do know is that some CJD cases are genetic.

"Ten percent of all cases occur in families," said Dr. Paul Brown of the National Institutes of Health, "and the disease is inherited in a blue-eyed, brown-eyed manner."


A much smaller percentage of cases, Brown said, are transmitted accidentally through contaminated medical products. (162K AIFF sound or 162K WAV sound)

That leaves nearly 90 percent of cases unexplained -- and that is where the speculation about possible transmission of the disease from cattle to humans fits in the picture.

But in an editorial in the British Medical Journal, Brown says that it is possible the disease came through infected pork or chicken -- although there is no evidence of it.

"I just raise the point because if Great Britain took the step of slaughtering 11 million cattle, there would be many red faces if it turned out the cattle were not responsible," Brown said.


Brown says that chickens or pigs fed contaminated nutritional supplements could have been brought to market before the disease had a chance to show up in them.

Also in the British Medical Journal, a British researcher cautions health officials against making the same mistakes they did during the early stages of the AIDS epidemic.

The researcher calls for tracking CJD victims and their babies to see if there is any risk of transmission from mother to child, as well as tracking health workers exposed to the disease.

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