Worst case plan for BSE would doom 40m sheep

September 28, 2001 The Guardian (London) by Paul Brown
Up to 40m sheep might have to be killed if any are found to have BSE, the disease thought to be the cause of the fatal brain disease vCJD in humans.

The government yesterday published a contingency plan for how it would react in a worst case scenario.

Next month, the government is expected to receive results of research to show whether there is BSE in sheep as well as the similar brain disease scrapie. If BSE is found it is likely that at least a partial ban will be imposed on eating lamb, creating further crisis in an industry already reeling because of foot and mouth. So far, beyond laboratory tests, there is no evidence that sheep contract BSE.

There are thousands of cases of scrapie a year, but it is not harmful to humans. However, because the symptoms of the disease are so similar to BSE, the government is checking that BSE does not also exist in the national flock. Preliminary results have been inconclusive.

The contingency plans were drawn up following the BSE inquiry, which said the government should be prepared for the eventuality that BSE had also spread to sheep. The government also followed up another recommendation and has begun a national pro gramme of eliminating scrapie from sheep.

Advances in genetics have shown that a quarter of sheep in Britain have immunity to scrapie. By encouraging sheep farmers to use rams immune to the disease the government hopes to get rid of it altogether.

Using the same methods the government hopes to avoid killing all 40m sheep if BSE is discovered in the national flocks. They would be killed selectively after genetic testing.

Yesterday the government also published its response to the BSE inquiry, and Elliott Morley, the agriculture minister, said he believed the culture of secrecy and protection of the food industry criticised in the report had disappeared.

The report revealed that further research had shown that feeding young calves with infected animal protein might have been the cause of the epidemic, transferring scrapie from sheep to cattle in the form of BSE. This was the original theory for the spread of the disease which had been discounted.

Hopes that BSE would be eliminated by this year have been dashed, the report says. There are still an average of 20 cases a week, compared with 1,000 a week at the height of the epidemic in 1993.

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