Mad Cow: Down but not Out

3 min read

If you haven’t got Mad Cow yet, it’s likely that you’ll get away with all those Big Macs you ate in the 80’s.

Deaths from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

BSE was initially recognized in cattle in the UK in 1986. It is estimated that up to 400,000 cattle infected with BSE entered the human food chain in the 1980s. The epidemic in cattle in Britain reached incredible proportions: by 1993 more than 1,000 cases per week were being reported.

Initially, it was assumed that humans could not contract a spongiform encephalopathy from infected cattle. While cows could theoretically get BSE from consuming sheep infected with scrapie, due to genetic differences between humans and cattle, people were considered safe (humans have never been affected by contaminated sheep). Although scientists were questioning this logic as early as 1990, it wasn’t until 1996, when 10 people contracted the human form of BSE (vCJD) that the authorities woke up to the risks.

The number of cases grew year on year until peaking in 2000, about 8 years after the peak of the epidemic in cattle. However, per the chart above, the number of deaths from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) look well into decline.

A cumulative total of 159 cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease had been reported in the UK by the end of December 2005, of whom 153 had died. Outside the UK, the numbers remain small with 15 cases in France, four in the Republic of Ireland, two in the United States, and one each in Canada, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, and Spain (1).

CDR Weekly 26 Jan 06 PDF

So my question is, will the Singapore Health Authorities reconsider accepting my O-negative despite that I lived in the UK from ’88-92. Answer: probably not.

In 2004 a new report published in the Lancet medical journal showed that vCJD can be transmitted by blood transfusions (Peden, 2004). The finding alarmed healthcare officials because a large epidemic of the disease might arise in the near future. There is no test to determine if a blood donor is infected and is in the latent phase of vCJD. In reaction to this report, the British government banned anyone who had received a blood transfusion since January 1980 from donating blood.

On May 28, 2002, the United States Food and Drug Administration instituted a policy that excludes from donation anyone who lived in high-risk areas of Europe from 1980 to the mid-1990s. A similar policy applies to potential donors to the Australian Red Cross’ Blood Service, procluding people who have spent a cumulative time of six months or more in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996.


It turns out that, while I was practically a strict vegetarian while living in the UK, I may yet suffer from Mad Cow disease:

A "significant level" of the population could be unknowingly infected with variant CJD, according to scientists whose study reveals the disease to be more easily transmitted than previously thought. The debate about the number of people infected by vCJD – the human form of BSE – has ranged from estimates of a few hundred to hundreds of thousands. Some people are understood to be more genetically susceptible to the disease but the study published today by Lancet Neurology shows that mice with all variations of the gene involved were susceptible to different degrees to vCJD passed on through infected blood transfusions.

The Guradian – 27 March 2006

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Age of victim:
BSE - vCJD incidence