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Scientists probe eight new CJD 'hotspots'

April 9, 2001 Daily Mail (London) by James Chapman

SCIENTISTS are investigating eight more potential clusters of variant CJD, it emerged yesterday.

Experts have identified possible links between deaths from the human form of mad cow disease at a number of 'hotspots'.

The disclosure raised fears that more communities could suffer the anguish of Queniborough, the Leicestershire village where five young people died from the illness.

The Department of Health confirmed last night that 'possible connecting factors' were being studied between victims in Stockport.

Paul Dickens, 28, and Stephen Lunt, 34, who died from vCJD last year, lived only two streets apart.

In Armthorpe, South Yorkshire, two childhood friends who were victims lived in the same street. Sarah Roberts, 28, who died last September, was friends with Matthew Parker, who died, aged 19, in March 1997.

Experts believe there may also be linked pairs of cases in South Wales; Stockton-on-Tees, Cleveland; Chester-le-Street, Durham; Eastleigh, Hampshire; Walton- on-Thames, Surrey; and Strathclyde.

The Queniborough cluster was blamed on traditional methods of slaughtering and cutting meat at family butchers and abattoirs.

Other factors, however, will be considered in the latest inquiry by scientists at the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh. Experts will, for example, look at any possible links between victims and GP practices, vaccines, water supplies and workplaces.

Families of the deceased will be asked to complete questionnaires about their loved ones' lives.

A source close to the study said: 'The evidence suggests variant CJD is likely to have been food-borne.

'But obviously we must keep an open mind and consider otherfactors, such as surgical procedures.

'Every potential common link will be looked at. As the cases rise it's more likely we are going to get outbreaks in the same areas.

'The difficulty is judging when something has become statistically significant'.

The source added: 'It may be that scientists will find a clear common factor that will help us understand more about the source of the disease.'

Ninety people have died from vCJD since March 1995 while seven more are currently thought to be dying.

Scientists are reluctant to predict the eventual toll.

A study of the victims so far appears to suggest that northerners are twice as likely as southerners to be struck down.

Simon Cousens, an epidemiolo-gist who led the study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the CJD Surveillance Unit, discovered where 84 of the known victims were living in early 1991.

He found there were two cases of vCJD north of a line drawn from North Wales to the Humber for every one south of it.

'The main finding is that the incidence of vCJD is twice as high in the northern half of Britain as it is in the south, ' said Mr Cousens.

Data from the Government's annual household food survey suggests significantly more processed meat products were eaten in areas with the highest number of cases of the disease.

Mr Cousens, whose findings are published in The Lancet, said: 'Scraps of meat stuck to the bone were removed by a high-pressure mechanical system.

'This tended to be used in burgers, pies and sausages.'

The practice, widely used to produce cheap food, was not banned until 1995. Mr Cousens said those in the North could have been exposed to larger doses of infectious material - meat infected with BSE - because of their diet, and were displaying symptoms of disease earlier.

'Given the recent findings from Leicestershire, we would ideally like to know not just what people ate, but how it was prepared in the abattoir and butcher's shop,' he added.

'It could be that particular meat preparation practices were different in the North than the South in the 1980s.

'We also need to keep an open mind about other factors unrelated to diet.'


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