Mad cow threat overblown, U.S. scientist declares: North American animals won't ever carry disease, he tells international conference

Mad cow threat overblown, U.S. scientist declares:
North American animals won't ever carry disease, he tells international conference

June 14, 2001 The Ottawa Citizen by Mark Kennedy

The first Canadian victim of mad cow disease will likely be someone who previously lived in Britain and ate infected beef there -- not a person who ate meat from North American-raised cows.

That's the prediction of a senior American scientist who urged an international conference on mad cow disease yesterday not to overplay the dangers of a worldwide epidemic of the disease.

Dr. Paul Brown, of the U.S. government's National Institutes of Health, said most estimates about the future human toll of the fatal neurological disorder are exaggerated. So far, only 105 people have been diagnosed as confirmed or suspected cases. Epidemiologists are divided and have produced worst-case, final-figure estimates ranging from 170,000 victims to five million people.

But Dr. Brown believes only several hundred people will get the disease -- most of them Britons -- and that not a single person in North America will get it from eating domestically produced meat.

Despite Dr. Brown's positive message, participants at the United Nations-organized conference said it was prudent to assume all countries throughout the world are at risk for the killer disease -- known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cows and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans.

"We do not have BSE," Dr. Brown told conference participants about North America. "I do not think we will ever have it if the regulations in place are implemented as I believe they are being implemented."

In an interview later, Dr. Brown said the chance of countries getting wrapped up in hysteria over the global spread of BSE through exported beef products is actually now greater than underestimating the threat.

"The first case of variant CJD, if it occurs in the U.S., logically would be in a soldier based in London for three years during the late 1980s.

"The same thing in Canada. The most likely thing is not even someone who travelled there (Britain) but someone who resided there. It really is a question of probabilities. It's Russian roulette. If you eat a million hamburgers you're more likely to have one that's contaminated than if you just go in and eat two and leave the country in a week. It's strictly a question of the length of time and simply pot luck chance, random contamination."

However, other speakers at the conference have said all countries -- including Canada and the U.S. -- should not be complacent about the danger that their livestock has been, or could be, infected with BSE.

At the heart of their concern is the fact that although BSE has so far been concentrated in Britain and Europe, an untold amount of infected products were exported in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of the products (recycled remains of dead cows, known as meat and bone meal, which are added to animal feed) were shipped to the Middle East and eastern Europe. But there are indications a small amount could have also entered Canada and the U.S. [If you considers tons to be a small amount--BSE Coordinator]

In Canada, the government bans the feeding of meat and bone meal to ruminants such as cows and sheep. While it does do some testing (about 4,500 tests between 1992-99 out of a herd of nearly 15 million cattle), critics say the sample is too small.

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