Mad cow disease may be here: Brain-wasting menace 'could be incubating in Canadian population'; Citizen-obtain report warns of 'an international problem'

Mad cow disease may be here:
Brain-wasting menace 'could be incubating in Canadian population';
Citizen-obtain report warns of 'an international problem'

June 2, 2001 Ottawa Citizen by Mark Kennedy

The fatal brain-wasting disorder commonly known as mad-cow disease may be incubating in cattle and humans in this country, according to a report prepared for Health Canada.

The internal "risk-assessment" report, obtained by the Citizen through the Access to Information Act, concludes there are too many unknowns about the disease to issue an assurance that Canadians face no risk of contracting it.

The mysterious neurological disorder, known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), can strike down a variety of animals, including humans.

Of the family of TSEs, the most notorious is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which infected at least 180,000 British cattle in the 1980s and 1990s and has recently been discovered among cows in other major European nations.

More than 100 people -- most of them Britons -- have contracted the human form of the fatal illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), apparently by eating BSE-infected beef. The number of victims is sure to grow, although scientists are divided over whether the final toll will be limited to hundreds of people or extend into the millions.

In recent months, Canadian government officials have issued strongly worded assurances that this nation is "BSE free" and that there is relatively little to worry about.

The internal report, however, paints a less rosy picture. It concludes that while the risk is "low," there is a possibility that BSE and vCJD are already present in Canada. If so, it warns, people may be unknowingly spreading the disease -- which can incubate symptom-free from 10 years to perhaps 40 years -- to other humans.

"It is likely that some Canadians were exposed to the BSE agent through bovine-derived products from the UK and possibly from other countries incubating BSE," says the report.

"It is not known whether any Canadians received an exposure high enough to cause disease."

However, the report concludes vCJD "could be incubating in the Canadian population thus posing a risk of person-to-person transmission through tissue and organ donations, medicines and medical devices prepared from human tissues and reuse of inadequately sterilized invasive dental, surgical and diagnostic instruments and equipment."

Scientists say vCJD can likely be spread by used surgical instruments and suspect -- but are not sure -- that the agent can be transmitted through blood.

Despite the unknowns, the report emphasizes that "the possibility that a TSE risk exists in Canada must be acknowledged."

Specifically, it concludes that BSE "could be incubating in Canadian cows and other livestock, but exposure has not resulted in clinical signs. The absence of clinical disease may be explained by the incubation period being longer than the lifespan of most livestock or by the level of exposure being less than the threshold for disease."

It's believed cows can incubate BSE from four to seven years before showing symptoms. The report says there's a low risk of BSE emerging in Canada because there have been no cases yet diagnosed among domestic cattle.

As well, it says it would be difficult for the disease to spread among cattle because Canada has, since 1997, banned the long-standing practice of feeding the ground-up remains of dead cows (known as meat and bone meal) back to cows. It was this cannibalistic feeding method that spread the disease so quickly in Britain.

Nonetheless, the report cautions that "the emergence of BSE in new countries 13 years after the recognition of the first case in the UK indicates that this is an international problem."

"International trade provides opportunities for the spread of disease among livestock."

A particularly vexing problem is "the lack of information on whether any particular product, whether domestic or imported, actually carried infectivity in the past or currently carries infectivity," says the report.

Later this month, three United Nations agencies, including the World Health Organization, will host a conference in Paris to review the threats posed by BSE and vCJD. Scientific experts, government officials, and consumer and industry representatives will gather to discuss the types of beef byproducts that might be spreading BSE worldwide and how humans might also be contracting vCJD and then infecting others.

The Health Canada report was commissioned by the department and prepared by two private consultants with an expertise in toxicology. Department spokesman Ron Rogers says it marked the first time a comprehensive review was conducted of TSE risks in Canada.

The report was submitted to the government last summer, and the government is now using it as the blueprint for a much more focused risk-assessment review.

Mr. Rogers said four teams of bureaucrats have been established to study the issue. Their job is to try to pinpoint the "real, versus theoretical" risks identified in the report.

As for the report's central finding that BSE and vCJD might already be present in Canada, Mr. Rogers said the two diseases must be treated separately. "Canada is free of BSE," he stressed, insisting that if a cow did have the disease, it would have been spotted by now.

Mr. Rogers said that no Canadian has yet been diagnosed with vCJD, but acknowledged that this doesn't mean no one has the disease.

"I think it's pretty clear that there are a lot of travellers and people who have resided in the European countries during the epidemic. ... So people could have been exposed."

The Health Canada report identifies two types of "risk factors" -- those associated with "past practices" that pre-dated government-ordered precautions, and those stemming from current practices.

It says there were five risks associated with past practices:

- Imports of live ruminants (such as cows and sheep) and ruminant-derived animal feed from the UK "during the emergence of the BSE epidemic." Canada imported UK meat and bone meal up until 1982, when BSE was incubating in Britain's cattle herds, where it first emerged in late 1984. As well, Canada imported live cattle from the UK until 1989.

- Imports of food, medicines, blood products, vaccines and cosmetics made with animal-derived materials from the UK during the BSE epidemic.

- Imports of animal-derived food, animal feed and other products from other countries incubating BSE.

- Feeding of cattle and other livestock and poultry "through cannibalistic feeding pathways."

- Manufacture of medical devices, biologicals and pharmaceuticals from ruminant-derived materials from the UK or other high risk countries.

Meanwhile, the report lists 16 "risk factors" linked with current practices. Among them:

- Imports of food (such as processed meats, sausage casings, gelatin and dairy products), medicines, blood products, vaccines and cosmetics made with animal-derived materials from countries with BSE, a high risk of developing BSE or unknown BSE status.

- Travel by Canadians to BSE-affected countries, where they are then exposed to the mad-cow agent.

- Immigration from BSE countries to Canada of individuals already exposed to BSE.

- Inadequate sterilization of dental, surgical and diagnostic equipment that could be used on someone with vCJD and later used on someone else.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) say they have put in place strong safeguards to keep watch for the emergence of TSEs.

The CFIA says its meat-and-bone meal feeding ban is one such precaution, adding that it has also tested several thousand cows in recent years for BSE.

But critics say those safeguards contain huge loopholes and that the ban should extend to all animals, an extra step taken by Britain years ago, and more recently by the European Union.

Critics say there is a risk of "cross-contamination," in which feed destined for pigs and poultry ends up in cow stalls. But the CFIA says it requires feed mills to properly label their products so that this doesn't occur and that the companies are complying with the rules.

The CFIA also says it has tested several thousand cows since the early 1990s and only one, an imported cow from Britain, has been diagnosed with BSE.

But critics say the sample size is too small and that widescale tests, such as are now being conducted in Europe, are the only way to be sure that Canadian cows don't have BSE. Government officials, however, caution that widescale testing may not be practical because they cannot be carried out on live animals.

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