Red faces, white coats, blue funk

April 5, 1996

The first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy was diagnosed a decade ago after the death of a Kent cow which had become edgy and unable to control its movements. The disease spread from 20 cases in 1987 to eight times that number by the middle of 1988 when a group of experts, under Sir Richard Southwood, professor of zoology at Oxford University, met to assess the disease's implications. That committee recommended all infected cattle be destroyed and the feeding of cattle or sheep protein to other cattle or sheep be halted.

Interestingly, in the light of recent findings, it also concluded BSE could not be passed on from cows to humans and that it was "most unlikely BSE will have any implications on human health". The government implemented the Southwood recommendations in stages. It set up a BSE research consultative committee at a time when public concern was growing. The first measure to protect the consumer from BSE was taken in November 1989 when offal sales were banned. By then the British public had been theoretically exposed to the disease for four years.

Until last month, when the unit which monitors Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in Edinburgh pointed to a possible link between BSE in cattle and CJD in humans, the Government had been saying there was no risk from eating beef. There is, however, no proof. No one knows what causes BSE in cows. There is no diagnosis and no cure.

Over time government action on the new disease has been strengthened. It increased membership of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee last year at the time a new chairman, Professor John Pattison, took over. Pattison is respected as someone who gives honest and fearless advice. Crucially, deputy chairman of the committee is Dr Robert Will, who runs the Edinburgh CJD surveillance unit that examined the ten recent cases of CJD in young people. LH

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