"Mad Cow" disease is in the headlines again as new cases of infected cattle have been reported across Europe, particularly in France and now today for the first time in Germany. Governments are issuing bans on beef products and working to restore consumer confidence. RFE/RL's Erica Hurtt looks at the deadly disease and what is being done to fight it.
Prague, 24 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The first case of mad cow disease, known in scientific circles as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE, was first discovered in British cattle 15 years ago. But officials are still not sure what causes BSE and how its spread can be stopped.
Although the human variant of the disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, is still rare, almost 90 people have contracted it and died since 1996. Most of the deaths have occurred in Britain, but three fatal cases were reported in France and one in Ireland.
The latest scare began a month ago when up to eight tons of potentially infected beef products made it onto store shelves in French supermarkets. Three supermarkets admitted they sold beef that possibly contained BSE.
Panic was fueled when France's agricultural department reported at least 100 new cases of BSE-infected cattle this year, three times more than the 1999 figure. Six new cases were reported in France this week. And in Germany today, officials say two cows have tested positively for the disease, the first time BSE has been detected in that country.
BSE has now been discovered in native cattle of 11 European countries. The majority of cases have been reported in Britain, France, Portugal and Switzerland.
France, which continues to boycott British beef even after the EU lifted its ban, now finds itself on the other side of the fence. Switzerland, Italy and the Czech Republic have all banned imports of French beef.
Governments in Europe have adopted costly precautionary measures, including banning animal-based cattle feed, thought to be the source of the disease, and increasing the testing of meat. Italy, France, Belgium and Switzerland have removed beef from school menus.
Officials say the incidence of BSE is not rising, but that the increased testing is simply discovering existing cases. But many European citizens are still worried and their concerns are reflected in a 40 percent drop in beef sales in France.
Dr. Maura Ricketts is a medical consultant for the World Health Organization's animal and food safety division. She says that people are worried because they haven't been given sufficient information:
"There remain large concerns in the public's eye that they have not been well informed about this disease and that they haven't been given up-to-date information."
Scientists themselves are still learning about the disease. Earlier, they thought mad cow disease could not spread to humans. That theory was proved wrong in 1996 when 10 cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease were discovered in Britain. Reports suggest that more stringent actions would have been taken if officials thought humans were at risk.
The World Health Organization's Ricketts said other questions about mad cow disease create more problems.
"The incubation of the disease was unknown at the very beginning and it turned out to be four, five, six years and that meant that even after you instituted an appropriate intervention measure, it took an awfully long time in order to see the results."
Now government officials are predicting hundreds and possibly thousands of deaths from CJD in Britain and France alone.
Scientists are still not sure why the incidence of the disease has been limited to Europe. Animal-based cattle feeds are used on other continents without incident.
At a meeting of EU agricultural ministers Tuesday, France lobbied to ban the use of all animal-based feeds by European Union members. But member countries that have not reported BSE in native cattle have objected, citing the cost and inconvenience to farmers.
Scientists says it will likely take more than a change of animal feeds to eliminate BSE.
"When you see how difficult it is to control this disease, when you see that we don't fully understand the agent, that we can't fully predict what will happen in an epidemic, that many countries undertook very good measures and somehow the disease continues to be present -- even though in very low numbers -- you can see why we want to revisit this issue."
Current testing methods require samples of brain tissue, meaning tests can only be performed on dead animals. Scientists believe a test that could detect BSE in live animals would help remove infected cattle from the food chain earlier.
That test, when developed, could also detect BSE in its early stages, which researchers say would be a major step forward.