First case of vCJD sends alarm bells ringing in Italy

February 6, 2002 Deutsche Presse-Agentur
Authorities were rushing to reassure Italian consumers Wednesday after the first case of Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), a fatal brain disease thought to be linked to the consumption of BSE-infected meat, was diagnosed in Italy.

"The thorough check-ups we are carrying out make us say that Italian meat is safe," said Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia.

Sirchia, however, said he could not make a similar statement about the past. Italy introduced strict controls and mandatory testing for BSE at the beginning of last year, after the latest BSE scare broke out in Britain. The incubation period of vCJD can last from five to to 20 years, experts warn. Just days after announcing that the European Union would soon lift its ban on Italy's famous on-the-bone Fiorentina steak - thought to be at high risk of BSE - Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno was forced to say that the latest news was "no reason for panic".

But consumer associations have described testing procedures as "insufficient and inefficient".

The Health Ministry said the first case of the fatal neurodegenerative disease had been diagnosed in a 23-year-old woman from Sicily.

Identified by Il Corriere della Sera as Maria Letizia, she was described as a bright and lively university student from the Sicilian town of Menfi, near Trapani. Doctors described her condition as "severe". She has difficulties walking and suffers from memory loss, Professor Federico Piccoli, a neurologist, said.

Her patient first noticed the symptoms of the disease last spring, but the diagnosis was only confirmed after new tests were carried out in Britain.

More than 50 cases of BSE have been reported in Italy since mandatory testing was introduced.

The first ever case of BSE in Italy was reported in 1994, in two cows in Trapani that had been imported from Britain.

According to reports, other cows thought to have been infected were reported stolen from the same farm. Its owner was the father of a well-known mobster, Agostino Lentini. Investigators suspect the missing cows may actually have been destined to Sicily's thriving clandestine butchering market.

Professor Piccoli said the fact that his patient came from the same area as the missing cows was no coincidence.

"This was not a fatality. This is what happens in a region where illegal butchering thrives," Professor Piccoli was quoted as saying.

Last year, police seized thousands of cows that were being fed with illegal feed, including flour made from animal parts, which is believed to be one of the main causes of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. dpa nr mu

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