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04 December 1997

More Mad Cow Madness

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick on the latest in the mad mad cow saga.

Further government regulations concerning the safety of British beef have provoked the latest upsurge in public fears about the dangers of 'new variant' Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD), now widely recognised as the 'human form of mad cow disease' (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy).

It would be difficulty to imagine a disease more appropriate to British society in the 'nervous nineties' than nvCJD. It is characterised by a devastating loss of physical control and mental capacities, and progresses rapidly through dementia and total dependency to death. Though the nature of the disease remains mysterious and the scale of risk is incalculable, it appears to be linked to one of our most basic activities - eating - and to one of our most traditional foods - beef. Add in suspicions of official corruption and cover-up, a few intrepid scientific whistle-blowers and some bold investigative journalists and the BSE/nvCJD story is set to run and run.

Though much evidence now supports the view that nvCJD is linked to BSE, much more remains obscure (the cause of the disease, its source and mode of transmission all remain matters of intense scientific dispute). While most authorities accept the thesis, for which Stanley Prusiner is about to receive the Nobel Prize, that CJD, BSE and a number of similar diseases are transmitted by 'prions', others believe they may be caused by some sort of viral agent (others still believe they are auto-immune diseases or the result of exposure to toxic organophosphates).

While the government regulates beef, some believe that the source could just as easily be pigs or poultry - or even vegetables nourished by contaminated bone meal fertiliser. Some experts question whether another mode of exposure, which does not involve the food chain - such as 'peripheral inoculation' - might explain the currently baffling pattern of cases. It is worth noting that, though each case now receives unprecedented publicity, there has been no sign of an upward trend of cases, which stand at a total of 22 (3 in 1995, 10 in 1996 and 9 this year).

Ever since the government's March 1996 announcement that the 'most likely' explanation of the first ten recognised cases of nvCJD was beef contaminated with BSE, it has become locked into a process of interaction with the scientists on the one hand and the public on the other. This process, amplified through the media, has exacerbated popular anxieties - to the detriment, not only of the farmers and the meat industry, but of society as a whole.

At a time when wider social, economic and political forces have generated a climate of unprecedented insecurity, health scares have had an increasing impact on society (see Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: risk taking and the morality of low expectation, Cassell, 1997). An intensified sense of individuation has contributed to a growing distrust of traditional sources of authority - including medical and scientific experts, politicians and civil servants. In the evolution of the mad cow scare, this distrust was reinforced by the wider unpopularity of the Tory government, the cumulative effect of earlier health scares, outbreaks of food poisoning and the appearance of growing divisions of opinion among scientists themselves.

The remarkable feature of the fateful statements of 22 March 1996 by health minister Stephen Dorrell and agriculture minister Douglas Hogg - which precipitated the public panic, the ban on beef exports and catastrophe for farmers and butchers - was that they had no public health value whatsoever. If people had been exposed to BSE, this must have been before the 1989 ban on the inclusion of beef offal in animal foodstuffs and there was nothing further that anybody could do to avoid BSE. The additional regulations announced then - like those announced this week - were more a token display of rigour than of real practical importance. The government was not providing any useful information, but simply issuing an invitation to panic.

Scientific research now takes place under the glare of publicity. Preliminary and provisional results are now transmitted directly from specialist journals into the mainstream media (indeed they sometimes appear first in the popular press). Established processes of peer-review, criticism and discussion are short-circuited in the rush to publish, with potentially dangerous long-term consequences.

Hitherto unknown scientists have become celebrities. In their increasingly frequent media appearances, the scientists too seem to have become influenced by the febrile climate of public opinion. Thus, in their projections of the likely scale of the nvCJD epidemic, different members of the government committee - the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) - oscillate from sober estimates ('around 200' , Professor John Pattison, 8 June 1997, Sunday Telegraph) to prognostications of doom ('a plague of biblical proportions', Professor John Collinge, 3 October, New Statesman). The unpredictability of the epidemic gives these experts a free hand to choose projections on any particular day, to suit either their own personal inclinations or those of their audience.

New Labour government ministers, chastened by the experiences of their predecessors, are acutely sensitive to allegations of concealing scientific researches. In an administration distinguished by its attention to the art of news management, they are also alert to the danger that information they attempt to suppress will be leaked to the press, producing even greater public impact. Thus they rush to respond to the latest research, displaying their commitment to openness and transparency as well as to public health. The result is a series of statements in the spirit of 22 March, with no public health value, and actions, such as the great beef cull, of purely symbolic significance. In this way the irrationality of the culture of fear is intensified and the climate of anxiety about nvCJD reinforced.

Though the scientists are plagued by doubt, in the court of public opinion the humble hamburger has been tried and convicted. When a case was reported of a 24-year-old woman dying from nvCJD who had been a vegetarian for 11 years, the immediate response was to raise the spectre of an even longer period of incubation of the putative infectious agent, and to point the finger at the possibility of contaminated baby food (New Statesman, 29 August). Why baby food? There seems no better reason than to observe the law that all health scares ultimately lead back to the threat to babies and children, the most vulnerable members of a society that is now obsessed with the vulnerability of individuals to malign and indeterminate threats.

Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: risk taking and the morality of low expectation, Cassell, 1997, is available through LM Online's bookstore.

For previous articles available on LM Online about the mad cow saga, go to:

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