World Animal Health Group: test sheep for mad cow

January 29, 2002 Reuters [edited] by Souhail Karam
MARRAKESH: The World Animal Health Organisation (Office International des Epizooties; OIE) said on Tuesday that countries must test sheep flocks infected by scrapie for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Experts fear that scrapie could mask BSE, which could potentially sicken humans.

Alejandro Thiermann, president of the Animal Health Code Committee at OIE, said that should BSE be present in sheep, it would be much like scrapie. "Although there is no scientific evidence proving that scrapie poses a threat to humans, the needed differential tests are essential to answer this question," he told Reuters in an interview. He was speaking on the sidelines of a 3 day global food safety forum in Marrakesh, gathering representatives from 120 countries. The meeting, sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), is being attended by some 300 experts.

Thiermann said that experiments in which sheep were exposed to BSE resulted in animals showing scrapie-like signs. "Unlike in cattle, experimental BSE in sheep spreads to a greater number of body parts," he said. "But today, we have no evidence of BSE in sheep in the field situation, there is only scrapie, and this disease has been around for almost 200 years," he added.

One theory explaining the appearance of BSE in cattle is that it was due to the animals being fed meat and bone meal (MBM) made from sheep infected with scrapie. "We cannot though establish a direct link," Thiermann said. He said that as sheep were less valuable than cattle, farmers do not normally feed them with MBM. "But some farmers, mainly in Europe, use MBM for their sheep. However, sheep could be less susceptible to BSE," he said.

Infected MBM feed was blamed for the BSE epidemic that Britain discovered in 1986. A decade later, BSE was linked to a human disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which has killed more than 100 people in Europe. Scientists believe vCJD is contracted by eating BSE contaminated meat.

Scrapie in sheep is a similar type of disease to BSE, but is believed to pose no threat to human health. Britain's food watchdog has said consumers should not stop buying lamb. British scientists are still investigating whether BSE is present in the UK sheep flock, after a study of this question was found last year to have been botched because brain tissue from sheep was mixed with bovine material.

Recent research indicates variations in susceptibility to scrapie between different genetic lines in sheep. Such resistance could also play a role if BSE were found to be present in sheep. Thiermann said the OIE recommends farmers do not feed sheep or cattle with potentially contaminated MBM.

The Paris-based OIE two weeks ago convened its BSE and scrapie experts to decide what measures should be recommended if BSE were to be discovered in sheep in the field. "The recommendations will be more similar to those taken against scrapie in sheep than those for BSE in cattle," he said. "If BSE were to occur in sheep, the specified risk materials would be larger than for BSE in cattle."

Specified risk materials are those parts of the animal carcass considered most likely to carry the disease. In the case of precautions against BSE in cattle, these notably include the spinal cord. While acknowledging that OIE's information was based on hypothesis and experimental findings, Thiermann said there was an urgent need for the authorities to lead diagnostic tests to discover "if we are dealing with scrapie or BSE." He added, "We can't afford to wait for the first case of BSE in sheep before we embark on this research. Consumers would lose their faith in science.

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