Experts fear mad cow pandemic: UN report draws parallels to early stages of AIDS explosion; Long incubation allows stealthy spread

Experts fear mad cow pandemic:
UN report draws parallels to early stages of AIDS explosion;
Long incubation allows stealthy spread

June 12, 2001, The Ottawa Citizen by Mark Kennedy

Mad cow disease has joined AIDS as a major public health challenge facing the world, an international conference was told yesterday.

And just as governments imposed safety measures -- even without scientific justification -- to prevent the spread of AIDS two decades ago, so too must governments take precautionary action now to limit the spread of the human form of mad cow disease.

The stark message was delivered to government officials and scientific experts at the launch of a four-day meeting hosted by United Nations agencies that fear the fatal neurological disorder could become a global epidemic.

"Despite high-level political posturing at the start of this (mad cow) epidemic among many, many countries there's no denial today that potentially infected live animals and potentially infected products have been distributed widely," said Dr. David Heymann, executive director of the communicable diseases program at the World Health Organization.

"And the challenge is to determine just how widely and to determine how best to help, especially the developing countries determine their risk and what they can do to prevent the spread."

Dr. Heymann told the conference there are many striking similarities between mad cow disease and AIDS, which exploded onto the world stage 20 years ago as a frightening disease that baffled scientists.

"Both have a very long incubation period, one which permitted the disease to be widely distributed before it was even recognized," said Dr. Heymann.

Other similarities include: there is no vaccine; they're both "universally fatal"; and at the outset of each disease, there was no diagnostic test to determine whether someone is infected (an AIDS blood test was eventually discovered, but one is still lacking for people with the human form of mad cow disease).

"Both of these diseases required policy decisions before the science was in place to really make these decisions based on science," said Dr. Heymann.

He said that just like AIDS in the early days, mad cow disease carries many unknowns: How easy is it for a human to get it from contaminated food and donated blood? How many will get it and die? Can it ever be cured?

And so while Dr. Heymann said it's too early to suggest the disease will become a mass killer like AIDS, it's also too soon to insist the disease has not established a "foothold" in many countries.

"Some may say it has not, but the public health implications are profound if they are wrong."

Conrad Brunk, a University of Waterloo professor and expert in risk communication, told the conference the worst thing regulators can do is tell people there is "zero risk" associated with a product. Governments often do that because they fear the public will panic if told there is an unknown risk connected with something.

"That's a recipe for disaster down the road," Mr. Brunk said in an interview, "because events will prove you wrong and you'll lose your credibility as a risk regulator."

That's exactly what happened in Europe, where government officials spent years wrongly assuring their citizens that mad cow disease would not emerge within their nations.

Dr. Samuel Jutzi, a senior official of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, told the conference "animal agriculture in Europe has never before been faced by a similar vote of distrust from the consumers and the society at large."

Moreover, he suggested that "free market forces and deregulation" have contributed to the heightened risks of mad cow disease crossing borders through trade in goods and animals.

"Market liberalization and globalization may indeed, in the absence of strict enforcement of biologically and ecologically justified regulation, contribute to worldwide spread of such risks," Dr. Jutzi said.

Mad cow disease is thought to have started with a single British cow that experienced a genetic mutation and developed bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The disease was spread to other cattle when the BSE-infected cow died and its remains were recycled in animal feed to other cows. When those cows died, they were also fed back to cows.

Eventually, a large proportion of the British herds became contaminated in the 1980s, and some people who ate the beef contracted the human form of the brain-wasting ailment, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD).

About 100 people, mostly Britons, have contracted vCJD, and estimates of the final toll range from hundreds to millions of victims. The most recent suspected victim is a 34-year-old woman in Hong Kong who travelled frequently to Britain in previous years and may have caught the disease there.

Still, what frightens public-health officials is that much of the tainted U.K. beef and beef products were exported throughout the world in the '80s and '90s.

Animal feed supplements, known as meat and bone meal (MBM), containing the ground-up remains of infected British cattle were exported to dozens of countries, where more humans will eat infected beef and be exposed to vCJD.

In Canada, a report prepared for the federal government last summer concluded that mad cow disease could already be silently incubating among cattle and unsuspecting humans in this country.

However, officials in Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency say they are confident this country is "BSE-free." The Canadian cattle industry provides the same assurance.

Nonetheless, critics say Canada's existing safeguards contain loopholes. They say there should be mass testing of cattle to look for BSE. And they say a 1997 feed ban that prohibits the feeding of cow-based meat and bone meal back to cows doesn't go far enough. It should also be extended so the feed isn't given to other animals such as pigs and poultry, they say.

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