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Scientist: African antelope triggered Britain's mad cow disease

April 18, 2001 AP Worldstream by Ray Lilley

An African antelope imported for a British game park may have triggered the ''mad cow'' disease which has devastated beef herds in Britain, New Zealand researchers believe.

Scientists from Massey University, led by epidemiologist Prof. Roger Morris, is preparing to publish scientific work underpinning the theory, Morris said Wednesday.

The team investigated 35 different theories on the cause of the epidemic.

If true, the antelope theory would supplant a widely held belief that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) originated in sheep infected with a similar disease, scrapie, which were ground up for animal feed.

Scientific papers to be published later this year by Morris and the team will canvass the likelihood that a form of BSE occurs in wild antelope, and spread into British cattle when an infected animal from a wildlife park was rendered into meat and bone meal.

''The area of Britain where it started is the area where safari parks started in the 1970s,'' Morris told The Associated Press. ''I've actually got evidence that every step in the sequence could have occurred. And I know that various African antelopes are susceptible to the disease.''

Hugh Pennington, a professor at Aberdeen University in Scotland who has researched the disease, commented Wednesday that ''it's a very credible idea'' but he had not seen details of Morris' research.

''The attractiveness of the theory is that at least in principle it is possible to prove it,'' Pennington said in a telephone interview. ''If you found an antelope with this disease in the wild, it would be possible to take the agent and compare it with BSE and similar disease.''

Morris said it was likely that the antelope's brain and organs ended up in a batch of cattle feed given to about 1,000 dairy cows in the southwest of England between 1975 and 1977.

BSE disease was recognized in cattle in Britain in November 1986 by the British government's central veterinary laboratory.

''The missing piece of information which is a major challenge to get is to actually find the disease in the field in Africa. But we don't know which (antelope) species it was, and in the wild those that develop the disease get eaten by lions,'' he said, adding that lions also suffer the disease.

But he said it would now be impossible to prove that a single infected antelope caused Britain's mad cow epidemic.

An independent committee commissioned by the British government last year published a report which also downgraded the idea BSE originated from scrapie in sheep and concluded it most likely started with a genetic mutation in one cow.

Experts say that while pinpointing the origins of ''mad cow'' will not help Britain control the human form of the illness, it is important for heading off future outbreaks elsewhere around the world.


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