CJD death toll predicted to jump next year

November 25, 2001 Sunday Times (London) by Sue Leonard
THE number of people dying from the human form of mad cow disease is expected to rise by 40% next year, according to official forecasts.

Figures published by the CJD surveillance unit in Edinburgh suggest that about 35 people will die from the illness, which would be the highest annual total since the first recorded death in 1995. The total for this year is expected to be 25. Up to this month, 102 people have died from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). A further nine are alive but suspected of having the disease.

Robert Will, director of the unit, said: "We believe the rise is significant and not simply a change in diagnosis or referrals. All you can say is that vCJD is continuing to increase in the UK in the short term. We decided to put it on our website so people know what is going on. However, what we cannot say is how long this increase will be sustained for."

The fatal brain-wasting disease is thought to be caused by eating meat from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), particularly products made with mechanically recovered meat (MRM).

The average time between the first symptoms occurring and diagnosis is about 10 months. Patients generally live just more than a year after their symptoms begin. As their brains decay, mental faculties and physical abilities gradually diminish.

Recent victims include Julie MacRae, 30, a receptionist at a medical practice and mother of two from Inverness, who died in August, just months after she was originally diagnosed as suffering from depression. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital before it become clear that she was suffering from the deadly wasting disease.

The rate of infection is worst in northern Britain, possibly because of the greater consumption there of cheap products such as burgers, which contain a large proportion of MRM. The death rate in southeast England is only half that in Scotland. The disease also has a disproportionate effect on younger people; the median age of victims is just 28.

The new calculations, drawn up by Nick Andrews of the Public Health Laboratory Service, predict 35 deaths in 2002, although the total could be as high as 50 or as low as 22.

Andrews' projections are based on quarterly figures dating back to 1995 and have been prepared for members of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac), which advises the government.

The new forecast comes as scientists suggest that Britain may have seen the worst of the disease and deaths may not rise much above 200.

A study published in Science magazine runs counter to the claims of other researchers who say that 136,000 people may develop the disease in coming decades. The new research, carried out at the Pasteur institute in Paris, indicates that deaths in Britain would not exceed 1,000 even if current assumptions about genetic resistance to vCJD are wrong.

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