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23 March 1996

More Mad Cow Madness

Just when you thought it was safe to have a big Mac...another outbreak of mad cow mania, writes Dr Michael Fitzpatrick.

In February's Living Marxism, I acclaimed a 'historic achievement for the cult of the new public health - a health scare, not about a disease, but about the possibility of a disease' ('A mad, mad, mad, mad world'). The striking feature about the last round of panic about the supposed link between Creuzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in cows was, I wrote, that 'there has not been a single case in which its transmission from cattle infected with BSE to a human has been demonstrated.

So what has happened to create a new wave of panic within a few weeks? Nothing. It is true that the government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has noted some distinctive features in a number of recent cases of CJD. Though the details have yet to be published, it seems that some of the recent cases are uncharacteristically young and that the condition presents with more psychological features (depression, dementia) than the more familiar physical symptoms of loss of balance and coordination. There is also a distinctive distribution of pathological plaques and abnormal protein deposition in the brain.

But what has all this got to do with mad cow disease? Again, nothing. There is nothing in particular to suggest a link between these cases of CJD and BSE - the pathological patterns are quite different, there is no consistent pattern of occupational exposure or of any other environmental factor. Indeed the numbers are too small for epidemiological techniques to have much value.

The 'link' with BSE is that the cases of CJD are occurring some 10 years after BSE was first identified. It could equally be said that the emergence of this new form of CJD (if that is what it is) coincides with the rise of Britpop, the growing scope of the Internet and rising sales of Oil of Evening Primrose.

Why this crazy scare about BSE? The mad cow panic reinforces three themes with a pervasive influence in a modern society dogged by morbid preoccupations:
the precautionary principle, which means that unless you can categorically prove that something is safe, then you should avoid it (thus until it can be proven that BSE does NOT cause CJD, then the only sensible course of action is said to be to shun all beef products)

the revenge of nature, which means that we are supposedly paying the price for human interference in the natural order through agriculture, industry, science and technology in new waves of epidemic and other diseases, declining male fertility - and, as a consequence of feeding sheep offal to cows, BSE and perhaps CJD;

the doomsday scenario, according to which we are all assumed to be at risk of imminent disaster - it could be AIDS, global warming, the impact of a meteor - or an epidemic of CJD (it could claim between 10 and 100 000 lives says Dr Mike Painter)
Government ministers have been on the defensive over BSE/CJD this week, and the government's critics sense that this is an issue on which they can make headway. But the government might calculate that the promotion of three such conservative themes is well worth the lost sales of British beef.
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