Scrapie agent may be behind ``mad cow'': UK report

Scrapie agent may be behind ``mad cow'': UK report

July 19, 2001 Reuters by Sharman Esarey

LONDON (Reuters) - UK research published on Thursday said that an entrenched sheep disease, scrapie, could have triggered ''mad cow'' disease, whose human form has killed more than 100 people, primarily in Britain.

The government-sponsored study, led by Cambridge University scientist Gabriel Horn, concluded that meat and bone meal (MBM) infected with scrapie may have caused the UK's 1980s outbreak of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Scrapie is a fatal neurological disease, similar to BSE, that has been present in UK sheep for more than 250 years. It is not believed to be harmful to humans.

According to the report, a relatively high ratio of sheep to cattle in the UK, as well as its high incidence of scrapie, could mean that Britain's meat-based animal feed contained a relatively high amount of scrapie-infected material.

In addition, in the 1970s the UK began to give the feed to calves during the first 12 weeks of their lives, a practice that appears to have been less common in the United States and continental Europe.

``An unusual concatenation of events occurred in the UK during the period 1970 to the 1980s. The diet of many calves was changed so that MBM was included in their starter rations,'' according to the report. ``Furthermore, the MBM is likely to have included a relatively high level of scrapie-infected material.''

The authors speculate that these two factors might help explain why the BSE epidemic developed in the UK even though other countries have scrapie-infected sheep and used meat-based feed in the latter half of the 20th century.

The scientists played down views that meat-based feed was not the only culprit in spreading mad cow disease, which was first found in the British herd in 1986. A decade later it was linked to the deadly brain-wasting human disease variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (news - web sites).

``The evidence is very strong that the spread of BSE to the point at which it became an epidemic arose through the use of meat and bone cattle feed,'' the authors write.

``If transmission from mother to calf, contamination of pastures and/or the use of veterinary preparations played a part in the transmission of BSE, their effects are likely to have been small,'' the report indicates.

Also on Thursday, Britain announced plans to launch a programme aimed at eradicating scrapie in its sheep.

The French government is also expected to step up measures to fight scrapie this month, following an opinion issued in February by French food safety agency AFSSA.

AFSSA recommended excluding certain sheep and goat organs and tissues from the food chain, after scientists managed to infect sheep with BSE in the laboratory. There has never been a naturally-occurring BSE case in sheep.

Meanwhile, the BSE epidemic among UK cattle continues to decline. The number of BSE cases confirmed during 2000 was 1,311, which is 42% lower than in 1999. The number of suspected BSE cases reported this year to date--598--is 45% lower than at the same time last year.

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