First, there are feelings of anxiety and depression. A wobbly gait and an uncertain grip soon develop. Within a few months come memory loss, confusion, an inability to recognize familiar faces. Body and mind deteriorate until death occurs. From the symptoms, one might conclude Alzheimer's disease¿except that the illness completes its job in about a year, and patients are on average 29 years old. Only an autopsy will reveal, from the spongy mess that was the brain, that the patient died of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD)¿the human form of the dread mad cow disease.
Since the first deaths in 1995, about 100 people have succumbed to vCJD¿the vast majority in the U.K., where 15 died in 1999 and 27 last year, according to the U.K. Department of Health. The illness arises primarily through eating beef tainted by the substance that causes mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Between 1980 and 1996 in the U.K., 750,000 cattle infected with BSE were slaughtered for human consumption, and each cow could have exposed up to 500,000 people. Most of Britain's 60 million residents and untold numbers of tourists may therefore have come into contact with the BSE agent.
This article was originally published with the title Mad Cow's Human Toll.