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The mad cow disease epidemic

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

I vividly remember the time when I was a little girl and the entire world was extremely worried and scared of a sudden outbreak of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in the UK. I remember asking my mum about this disease and she explained to me that it was a horrible disease passed on from cows to humans and caused the brain to turn to “sponge”. I was so petrified by this news, that I stopped eating my beloved nutrition bars called Hematogen, the main ingredient of which is black food albumin extracted from processed cow’s blood.


In today’s post, we will tell you about CJD and its deadly outbreak in the UK in the 90s.


Beginning of the epidemic


In the mid 1980s and throughout the 90s and early 00s mass media around the world was full of information about the mad cow disease epidemic in the UK. The outbreak killed over 4 million cows and had a devastating effect on the economy. Numerous countries around the world banned the import of British beef, with some restrictions even lasting as long as late 2019.




In the images above you can see the cows affected by the disease.


But by far the most terrifying part of mad cow disease, was the consequential CJD disease developed in humans who consumed contaminated beef.


Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is fatal, and patients die a horrible death within days after the onset of symptoms. In the 90s, CJD took the lives of 177 people, 90% of who were younger than 25 years old.


What caused the epidemic?


With the increase in soybean prices (the main component of the cattle diet) in the 80s, farmers in the UK were forced to look for more affordable alternatives. Most farmers resorted to a high-protein product called meat-and-bone meal (MBM). This product contained remains of neural and muscle tissue of cows. In other words, by feeding cattle MBM, farmers cannibalised their cows!


It is believed that this type of cannibalisation of the cattle led to a mutation of the protein called prion. This protein is present in almost all mammals, but its exact role is not yet clear. It Is known that, when mutated, this protein begins to form toxic aggregates that spread throughout the body and cause horrible pathologies and inevitable death. Prion protein can be compared to a ticking bomb that waits for a special trigger to mutate and kill the organism. On top of this, the mutant prion protein is incredibly stable and cannot be degraded by high temperatures, formaldehyde treatment or high pressure.


It is noteworthy that CJD is extremely rare, that is why such a sudden increase in cases of this disease in the 90s scared the British authorities. Even though the first cases of CJD were reported in 1992, the British Healthcare Secretary only speculated that there might be a link between the mad cows disease outbreak and the sudden rise of the CJD cases in 1996.


Why did mostly young people get infected?


Up until today there is no clear answer to this question. However, there is a speculation that students and young people could not afford to buy beef from the high end supermarkets with stricter quality control procedures (such as Mark and Spencer or Waitrose). Typically, the young were more likely to buy beef from cheaper supermarkets, where the quality of beef was markedly worse. Thus, a BBQ with friends turned out to be fatal to 177 young people. To date, there is no other explanation for this tragic statistic and there is no clear recommendation available as to how to avoid being infected.


Symptoms of CJD


CJD is a rapidly progressing disease. The onset of the disease starts with apathy and slurred speech and difficulty walking. The disease progresses with symptoms like depression, insomnia, irritability, blindness and inevitable death. Modern medicine does not have a cure for CJD.


Is the second peak coming?


Some scientists argued that it might take at least 5 years to manifest the symptoms of CJD after the exposure to the virus. Thus, there was a speculation that there were more people infected with CJD in the 90s, but the pathogen remained dormant in the organism, and there was a chance for a second spike in the number of cases. However, as time has shown, the likelihood of this theory to be true is very low. The last case of CJD in the UK was registered in 1999, therefore, it is highly improbable that the pathogen would remain inactive for 21 years without affecting organs in the body.


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