More 'mad cow' deaths likely

August 10, 2002 Toronto Star 
The death of a Saskatchewan man this week from the human form of mad cow disease may be the first in Canada, but it won't be the last, health officials warn.

Some 100,000 Canadians a year travelled to Britain during the height of the mad cow outbreak there a decade ago, so chances are another case will come to light, Antonio Giulivi, director of Health Canada's health care acquired infections, said yesterday.

"I won't be surprised if we have another one," he said of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has an incubation period of seven to 15 years but is always fatal.

"Maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, but I can tell you right now we don't have any suspicious or possible or probable variant CJD cases." Public health officials in Saskatchewan yesterday offered reassurance that the safety of the blood supply was not in question, since the deceased man had never given blood. But it was also revealed that there is a "very minute" chance that 71 patients at a local hospital may have been exposed to the disease.

However, most residents already were shrugging off fears of contracting the illness.

"It's only one case. There's enough to worry about in everyday society (without) worrying about mad cow disease," Kerry Kowalenko, the 36-year-old owner of a billiard cafe in downtown Saskatoon, told The Star's Vanessa Lu.

"No one is really talking about it."

Derek Paproski, 33, said people trust the word of public health officials, who say the general public is not at risk.

"I think people are more worried about the grasshoppers," he said, pointing to an infestation that is plaguing the city because of a serious drought across Saskatchewan.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Anne McLellan sought to reassure Canadians yesterday that there was no cause for worry.

"There is no need to be panicked," Farah Mohamed said. "Certainly this has raised the level of awareness about this disease in Canada, but the public is not at risk and the country's beef supply is not at risk.

"The minister is concerned and is monitoring the situation and working with officials in Saskatchewan."

After extensive testing, health officials announced Thursday that a Saskatchewan man had died of the disease, which is directly linked to eating contaminated meat.

The man, who has only been identified as being less than 50 years old, is believed to have contracted the disease during extended stays in Britain during the outbreak years of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, was first detected in British cattle in 1986, resulting from cows eating feed made from infected animals such as sheep. While cows being falling, British officials always insisted humans would not contract the disease.

The first cases of the human variation emerged in Britain in 1996, and so far more than 130 people worldwide have died of the illness. It can be years before symptoms emerge.

The disease usually begins with serious psychiatric symptoms, such as psychosis or depression and then leads into dementia and co-ordination problems. People generally live about a year to 18 months.

While the general public is not at risk, Saskatoon public health officials have warned 71 patients who underwent a medical procedure earlier this spring at St. Paul's Hospital that a small chance exists they were exposed to the protein that causes the brain illness.

The man had undergone endoscope testing about eight weeks before doctors realized he had the disease, which can only be confirmed through a brain biopsy or after death.

The endoscope uses a fibre optic tube that can be placed down a patient's throat to look at the gastrointestinal tract.

Janice Chomyn, manager of disease control for public health, said 59 out of the 71 patients have been reached. The others are believed to be away on vacation. She said none of those patients had given blood, either.

"It's strange news to get hit with over the telephone" (about the possibility of infection), she said.

"The vast majority took it well. A smaller percentage were more nervous."

Among the worried is Jo-Anne Engele, a Grade 5 teacher in Saskatoon.

As one of the affected patients, she is becoming more concerned as she looks into the disease.

"Scientists don't know enough. There's no cure.

"They don't have the answers," she said, adding some patients are trying to organize a meeting of all those affected with public health officials.

Engele underwent the endoscope procedure in April because of an acid reflux problem, but said if she had known the risks, she probably would not have had the test.

Now the 41-year-old single mother would like to know if she had her procedure soon after the man who later died.

"I would really like to know if I was the first or the 70th, and if it matters," she said.

A public health spokesperson said if patients request a formal meeting, they would be willing to oblige, although nothing is planned right now.

"I would suspect the risk is very remote" of the patients contracting the disease from the endoscope procedure, said Dr. Kumanan Wilson, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who has studied the disease.

"The main concern is that the endoscope goes through the gastrointestinal tract, which is the suspect origin of transmission through eating infected meat."

Saskatoon's deputy mayor Lenore Swystun says people have faith in the doctors and in the system to protect them.

"When you're based in an agrarian economy, you're familiar with things like this and when things go awry," she said.

"It's a sad event, but life doesn't stop."

Nevertheless, lifelong Saskatchewan resident Ollie Sittler, 82, is considering giving up beef at the dinner table.

"It's very, very scary," she said.

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