Mad cow disease a human affliction, too

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Mad cow. No, it’s not a reference to an angry or psychotic bovine.

Rather it refers to how cattle act when they suffer a heinous disease given that commonly used name for the neurodegenerative affliction. The animal staggers and is unable to stand or walk. And humans can contract the disease, too.

Hence, I thought you should know something about it.

The disease is not new, and has been recognized by the medical profession for over 300 years as “scrapie,” a disease of sheep and goats in the British Isles. Two German scientists, Hans Creutzfeldt and Alfons Jakob, are credited with the first descriptions of the disease — hence called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease — as early as the 1920s.

After additional study, other researchers determined that a condition called “kuru” found in a tribe of people in the highlands of Papua New Guinea was the same or similar disease to CJD. The area is the first known to claim the disease in humans, with transmission believed to result from the consumption of affected human brains during cannibalistic funeral rituals.

As an affliction of animals, the vast majority of mad cow disease incidents have occurred in the United Kingdom, where more than 184,000 cases have been reported in cattle since 1986 according to an April 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control online at 1.usa.gov/6SAeKq. Four cases had already been reported within the U.S.

The first reported case of a human with the disease involved a 19-year old man in 1994 in the United Kingdom, where more than 150 people died from the disease. Whereas CJD affects mostly the elderly, the new variety known as “variant CJD” (vCJD) seems to affect younger people. Furthermore, there is little doubt that eating infected meat transmits the disease.

One of the most curious differences with this disease is that in animals the incubation period — the time between when the organism first enters the body and when the first symptoms appear— is three to 8 years.

In humans the incubation period is at least five years and possibly as long as 20 to 30 years or more. This long incubation period definitely challenges our ability to control the disease.

A new study reported this month suggests one in 2,000 people in the United Kingdom may still be harboring signs of the disease.

“Will these people develop disease and can they transmit it? There are many questions we still do not know the answers to,” study author Dr. Sebastian Brandner, a professor of neuropathology at University College London, told the BBC in an interview.

With no known cure, signs of the gruesome disease begins with mood swings, numbness in various parts of the body and uncontrolled body movements.

Eventually, Alzheimer-like memory problems become apparent as the disease spreads to much of the brain tissue, finally resulting in death. Autopsies reveal much of the brain as literally eaten away and looking sponge-like, hence the medical term for the disease: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy.

The disease is believed to be caused by tiny particles called prions, a form of protein found in the nerve cells of all mammals. Prions, like viruses, are actually “not alive” but are hard to destroy — it would require incineration for four hours at 900 degrees, for example, to destroy a prion.

In theory, a person ingests meat or another animal product containing abnormally shaped prions. The prions then get absorbed into the blood stream and cross into the nerve tissue.

When the abnormal prion touches a normal prion, it changes the normal prions’ shape into an abnormal one, thereby destroying the normal prions original function. These abnormal prions continue contacting and changing other normal prions. The nerve cell then tries to get rid of these abnormal prions by clumping them together in small sacs called lysosomes within the affected cells where they accumulate.

As the lysosomes become engorged within each nerve cell, that cell eventually dies, bursts and releases its abnormal prions, which then infect other cells. The final outcome is the formation of large sponge-like holes where many cells have died.

But the question that begs an answer is, Why now? If the only other recorded human outbreaks of this disease were in New Guinea, and they were caused by eating human tissue, what is causing it now?

The scientific consensus is that the feeding of animal by-products to other animals sets up a dangerous risk. In that manner, the abnormal prions are transferred from the feed containing infected animal tissue to the next animal within its feed. It could then be transferred to humans who consume that animal.

The most audacious aspect of the matter is a big-agriculture mentality that in many case puts the bottom line ahead of food safety. As mentioned in my previous columns, feeding hormones and antibiotics to increase the grain-to-gain ratio is now a common practice, but the growers have taken it a step further by feeding rendered animal parts to animals that are and always have been vegetarians!

Since 1989, BSE has been identified in twenty European countries as well as Japan, Israel and Canada. An December article in Food Safety News reported some Brazilian cattle had been found to be infected in 2010 but officials in that country kept is secret for two years.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, four cases of BSE-infected cattle have been detected within the U.S.,­ the first in 2003 in a cow imported from Canada to a ranch in the Yakima Valley. The latest, in April 2012, was a dairy cow in California.

That the incubation period can be as long as 30 years raises other disturbing facts. Because various animal products are used in the production of cosmetics and vaccines, many countries have banned animal products from those countries simply as a precaution.

We do not have all the answers, and due to an incubation period that could stretch out to two or more decades, we can only hope the problem doesn’t reach epidemic proportions before we get a handle on this disease.

While our FDA has officially banned importation of animal products from countries that have documented cases of BSE, in a global economy it remains possible some could get through.

Retired chiropractic doctor Francis Trapani’s background includes 41 years of practice plus doing investigative reporting and fitness programs for broadcast media in Hawaii. He has written three books and is working on a yoga self-help manual “The Doctor Prescribes Yoga.” For more information, go to drftrapani.com.

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