Human Mad Cow Disease Claims Oldest Victim

April 26, 2001 Reuters

LONDON (Reuters) - More elderly people will fall victim to the human form of mad cow disease, medical experts said on Friday after a 74-year-old man became the oldest victim of the fatal brain affliction.

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) was diagnosed after an autopsy was requested for the 74-year-old man on the basis that some of his symptoms were not associated with dementia and he died just seven months after they began.

Professor James Ironside of the CJD Surveillance Unit at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh said the death of the unidentified man is unlikely to be an isolated event, saying more cases of the disease could occur in people in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

Most of the 95 cases of the brain-wasting illness reported in Britain have been in people decades younger than the oldest victim.

``This case has important implications for the surveillance of vCJD, and raises the possibility that cases of vCJD in the elderly might be missed,'' they said in a letter to The Lancet medical journal.

Symptoms of the illness, which include loss of co-ordination, confusion and personality changes, can be mistaken for dementia in older people. Cases of vCJD are usually confirmed by an autopsy, which is not commonly performed on the elderly.

Doctors ``should be aware that vCJD can arise in elderly patients so that appropriate investigations are done,'' the experts added.

Doctors should request scans and autopsies in suspected cases of vCJD in the elderly.

The elderly man, a retired electrician, had no family history of brain disease and was healthy until he complained of pains in his hands and then became forgetful and started having hallucinations and paranoid delusions.

But the scientists said he ate meat pies and sausages at least once every week and pate every month. Researchers suspect humans get vCJD, which was first identified in 1996, by eating meat contaminated with mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Last month an inquiry into a cluster of vCJD deaths in central England said local butchering practices were the most likely cause of the vCJD cases.

Because of its long incubation period, which can be up to 30 years, scientists say it is impossible to predict how many people will be struck down by the disease. Estimates range from thousands to tens of thousands over the coming years.

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