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
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
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:
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.
- 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)
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