Mad Cows on the March?

Spring, 2001 American Outlook Magazine by Betsy McCaughey
The American press has begun to raise concerns about mad cow disease, but interviews with leading scientists reveal that you haven't been given the story about the real risks. You can keep eating juicy steaks. But taking dietary supplements or going into the hospital for surgery may put you in danger. Some of the current fears about mad cow disease are unwarranted, such as the panic over steak and worries about vaccines. But there are other dangers you need to be warned about.

Mad cow disease is one variation of a category of brain-deteriorating diseases called spongiform encephalopathy (spongy brain disease). The best guess is that it started when cattle were fed carcasses of sheep sick with scrapie, another form of spongiform encephalopathy. The disease spread to humans in Great Britain when they ate infected beef. (Technically, in humans it is called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.) It still has not broken out in the United States.

The culprit, however, probably was not steak. Mad cow disease lurks in the brain, spine, eyes, and glands of infected cows, not in their muscles. The deadly foods were sausages and ground or compressed meat products containing these highly infective parts. Steak would only be a risk if the butcher cut through the cow's spinal cord and then used the same contaminated saw to slice your steak.

Highly infective animal parts such as the pituitary gland, spinal tissue, and brain, however, are used in a wide variety of diet supplements. Thus, scientists see diet supplements as one of the biggest dangers. All it takes is half a gram of infected brain tissue ingested orally to transmit the disease to an animal as large as a human or even a cow, estimates Dr. Paul Brown, a central nervous system specialist at the National Institutes of Health. That, he adds, is about the amount in a single "good diet supplement pill."

Another overlooked risk is infection in the operating room. The risk to you is in being the next patient wheeled into the operating room after someone silently carrying mad cow disease. Should a patient who has lived in Great Britain for years notify his doctor before certain kinds of surgery? Absolutely, says Dr. Paul Brown.

Killing the infectious agent that transmits spongiform encephalopathy is not easy. In an experiment last year, Dr. Brown injected hamster brains with spongiform encephalopathy-producing proteins, called prions. He put the brain tissue in a sterilizer and heated it to 1,112 degrees. The tissue was reduced to ash, but the infected prions were not destroyed. It may take a combination of high heat and chemicals such as lye to destroy the infective prions. "We still have not solved the problem of potential risk from instruments too delicate to withstand harsh chemicals and autoclaves, and too expensive to discard," Brown warns. It is not going to be easy to make operating rooms safe.

While the real risks of transmitting mad cow disease are often ignored, there has been unwarranted, unnecessary fear over vaccines and other medications made from cow derivatives. The FDA scientifically calculated the actual risk of a human being becoming infected through bovine-derived vaccines, and found it to be no more than one in forty billion, so low that the FDA allowed the vaccines to remain in use. One in forty billion meant that if all the children in the United States were given the vaccines, only one would become infected every five thousand years, a danger the FDA correctly dismissed as "remote and theoretical."

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