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Continental Europe Faces Rise In Cases of Mad-Cow Disease

September 19, 2001 The Wall Street Journal by Steve Stecklow
LONDON -- France, Germany and several other European countries are likely to see increasing numbers of mad-cow cases in cattle in future years, a member of a British government scientific advisory panel warned Tuesday.

"There are considerable concerns about what may happen in the coming years in mainland Europe and other countries," Roy Anderson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College School of Medicine in London, told the other members of a panel on the disease. Dr. Anderson said the rise in cases in France and Germany "is very steep," while Spain, Italy and Greece also have growing numbers of cases.

France has reported 152 cases of the disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, this year alone, while Germany has had 95 cases. Both countries stepped up testing efforts in response to an outbreak of the cattle disease on the European continent late last year. In Britain, where the disease originated and has spread to more than 178,000 animals to date, the number of annual cases continues to decline sharply, having peaked in 1992-93. So far this year, Britain has recorded 468 cases.

Dr. Anderson said he doesn't expect other countries to experience as severe an epidemic as Britain. "It's clearly going to be, hopefully, much, much less," he said. Scientists believe the disease is spread among cattle through contaminated meat-and-bone meal, used as a protein supplement. The material, made from ground-up cattle remains, is now banned in Europe.

The scientific panel also was told Tuesday that the number of cases of the human version of the disease continues to rise sharply. To date, there are 112 confirmed and suspected cases, comprising 106 in Britain, four in France, one in Ireland and one in Hong Kong. Deaths from the disease, known in humans as variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, or vCJD, currently are rising 30% a year.

"Of course, whether this trend will continue or change in some other way, we really don't know," said James Ironside, a neuropathologist who helps track the disease at a surveillance center in Edinburgh.

Scientists also don't know why, to date, about twice as many of the British victims came from northern England and Scotland as from the southern part of the country. While the answer could be due to differences in dietary habits or genetics, "we don't really have a satisfactory explanation," said Peter G. Smith, an epidemiologist and the panel's chairman.

The brain-wasting disease remains incurable, and victims generally die about 13 months after the first onset of symptoms; the incubation period remains unknown. But British government officials said they intend to design quickly a clinical trial to evaluate the potential effectiveness of quinacrine, an antimalarial drug, to treat vCJD. Scientists in San Francisco, led by researcher Stanley Prusiner, last month reported that in lab experiments, quinacrine inhibited the formation of an aberrant protein linked to the disease.

The U.S. government already has granted approval for human trials, and a British woman who has vCJD is being treated by the California group.

Write to Steve Stecklow at steve.stecklow@wsj.com


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