Debate rages over real risks of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Debate rages over real risks of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

June 6, 2001 The Ottawa Citizen by Mark Kennedy

Horrible images of Britain's dying cows colour our perception of the threat of a global epidemic, reports Mark Kennedy.

What's the point of worrying about mad cow disease when you're more likely to die of smoking, or obesity, or from getting run over by a bus at the street corner?

It's a question that some are asking these days amidst the talk of how the fatal neurological disorder could one day become an international epidemic.

Is mad cow just media hype? Or is it really a public-health nightmare on the horizon? It could be years before anyone knows the answer to the second question.

And that, say others, is precisely why governments should be taking precautionary measures now, before it's too late to limit the spread of a horrifying disease that kills all its victims.

Don Franco, vice-president of the National Renderers Association (the group of companies that sell ground-up animal remains to be fed back to other animals), says many governments are imposing safeguards that are simply unnecessary and "devoid of scientific validation."

"While Europe remains in turmoil and in the midst of putting new rigorous regulatory reforms in practice to prevent further transmission and amplification of the infectious agents of (mad cow disease), the U.S. and Canada are caught in the web of fear that is presently emotionalized by the media in their reporting," says Mr. Franco.

Others aren't so dismissive of the mad-cow threat. In their book, Mad Cow USA, co-authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton write: "What regulators and industry fear most deeply is 'consumer panic.' The issues surrounding mad cow disease are difficult even for scientific specialists to grasp, and policy makers fear that any airing of these issues will trigger misunderstandings, media sensationalism, and consumer boycotts of beef, milk and other products.

"But boycotts are probably inadequate to protect consumers from the dangers of mad cow and its related diseases. Animal products with possible infectivity are used in everything from garden fertilizers to cosmetics, and it is simply impossible for anyone to avoid them all."

It's in this climate of uncertainty that debate rages about the real risks posed by variant-Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human form of the brain-wasting disease that has been known to strike a variety of animals.

Indeed, the scary thing about mad cow isn't necessarily what we know, it's what we don't know.

Can you get it from a blood transfusion, or a donated organ, or a powdered dietary supplement, or an infected scalpel used on you when you had surgery? Scientists fear the answer is yes. But they're not positive.

It doesn't help that scientists are divided over the extent to which vCJD will grab hold of the human race. So far, 104 people have been diagnosed as confirmed or suspected vCJD victims, but an unknown number of others are silently developing the disease, which has an incubation period of from 10 to perhaps 40 years.

Some experts say the final toll will be in the hundreds; others say it could be in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.

At Harvard University in Boston, a special team of academics that study risk has been researching mad cow. Its U.S.-government commissioned report, to be completed within a couple of months, will analyse the risks posed by the disease in that country.

Harvard professor George Gray says that mad cow disease, with its TV images ofstaggering, slobbering cattle, pushes a lot of "risk perception buttons" in people that don't register with other diseases.

"You have to be careful about that when we're making decisions about what to do and which things to worry about. Often the risk perception buttons lead us astray."

Mr. Gray says far more people will die of obesity-induced heart disease, even in Britain and Europe, than of vCJD. In the U.S., 5,000 people a year die from microbial pathogens in food, such as salmonella and e-coli.

"Five thousand. That's a lot. That's a lot bigger risk than if vCJD stays where it is."

Still, Mr. Gray acknowledges that the current state of knowledge about vCJD is sketchy. And it's for that reason, he says, that Germany made a huge mistake in assuring its citizens that their cattle herds were "BSE-free" -- meaning none of the animals were infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the mad cow disease that strikes cattle. Essentially, it said there was no risk.

"How many things in life can you say that about?" observes Mr. Gray.

Dr. Stephen Dealler, a British microbiologist who was one of the first to warn that humans could get mad cow disease from infected cattle, says Canadians and Americans do face a lesser risk than those living in European countries.

He says the two North American nations have erected firewalls -- such as banning imports of UK beef and prohibiting the feeding of cow-based rendered remains (known as meat and bone meal) back to cows.

But that doesn't mean North America can become complacent, he warns.

"Canada has done better than other countries in this, but it is a very, very difficult disease to stop," says Dr. Dealler. "There's a tendency of governments to be arrogant and to think they have the answers."

Dr. Brian Evans, chief veterinarian at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), says mad cow disease is just one of many risks and it must be seen in context to the other risks we face.

"We live in a society for which people will accept risk as long as they know they can personally manage it and they're informed about it," Dr. Evans said.

"But we're also getting into a very risk aversive society. People are gaining knowledge and insights into practices that they didn't understand before and ... they're struggling to come to grips."

Dr. Evans is confident that Canada is BSE-free. But he adds that he learned one major lesson from the British mad-cow scandal, in which government scientists insisted throughout much of the '80s and '90s that people couldn't get the disease by eating beef.

"The lesson learned is that you should never make a definitive, absolute statement ... because you could be proven wrong. And as soon as you are proven wrong on an absolute statement, the whole issue of credibility and public confidence starts to weigh in."

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