Britons May Face New Wave of Mad Cow Deaths

December 13, 2002 Reuters by David Brough

ROME (Reuters) - Britain may face a future wave of the human form of mad cow disease among people whose genetic make-up could have delayed the onset of the deadly illness, the incoming head of the EU's new food watchdog said Friday.

"At the moment the deaths seem to be almost plateauing, although it is very early to reach a final judgment," said Geoffrey Podger, outgoing chief executive of Britain's official Food Standards Agency.

"Because vCJD may occur at different periods in life for people of different genetic predispositions, we can't yet be sure that we have seen the totality of the likely numbers who will be affected," he told Reuters during a visit to Rome to host a food safety seminar.

"In other words, there is this horrible possibility that there might be a second wave of people with a different genetic make-up, and that an outbreak could occur among them after a longer period."

Up to May, 128 cases of the degenerative variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) had been reported in Britain, France and Ireland, the vast majority of them Britons.

But many more people could be infected with the illness, which affects mainly young people and which scientists believe is caused by eating meat infected with mad cow disease.

Podger, who will lead the new European Food Safety Authority from February, said all those who had so far died from vCJD had a characteristic genetic make-up.

"Other forms of genetic make-up might later on prove to be susceptible to vCJD after a longer period," he said.

Podger could not rule out the possibility of future exponential growth in incidence of vCJD but declined to project the number of cases.

"It is certainly premature to take the view that the problem is diminishing for ever. We can't say that," he said. "We can't quantify it."

Podger said it was vital to continue to take all possible precautions to prevent mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).

"It does not mean not eating beef, providing that beef has been through all the procedures that are laid down, as beef in the UK certainly has," he said, referring to controls such as removal of "specified risk material" -- tissues that might harbor BSE -- and testing of older cattle.

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