In this week's edition of the RFE/RL Health Report, correspondent K.P. Foley reports on an interview with a U.S. expert on 'Mad Cow Disease,' the ailment whose spread is alarming Europeans. The health report also includes news about international initiatives against the spread of HIV and AIDS, and a United Nations proposal that intends to raise the quality of health information on the Internet.
********** What Is 'Mad Cow Disease'? Washington, 6 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Several countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and in the former Soviet Union, have banned beef imports from some European Union member countries because of fears over the spread of an ailment called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- commonly referred to as "mad cow disease."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture describes BSE as a chronic, degenerative disease that affects the central nervous system of cattle. The World Health Organization, a United Nations agency, says that worldwide there have been more than 178,000 cases since the disease was first diagnosed in 1986 in Great Britain.
Linda Detwiler, a veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explained the nature of the disease in an RFE/RL interview:
"(It) is a disease that affects the brain of cattle and other animals in that family and what it causes is fatal, so that they always die, it's a slowly progressive disease that affects the part of the brain that controls their motor skills or their coordination."
The first cases of this relatively new disease were recorded in British herds in 1986. The first case outside of Britain was recorded in 1989.
British health authorities speculate that the source of BSE was cattle feed prepared from carcasses of other animals, probably sheep infected with a similar ailment called scrapie, and that changes in the process of preparing cattle feed may have been a contributing risk factor.
The disease has also been confirmed in native-born cattle in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. The WHO says over 95 percent of all BSE cases have occurred in the United Kingdom.
BSE belongs to the family of diseases known as the transmissible (meaning it can be passed along) spongiform encephalopathies. These diseases are caused by an agent which scientists have not yet been able to fully describe.
Detwiler said there is still much about the disease that is unknown.
"No one is sure on the exact origin or where the disease first came from in the United Kingdom but one thing that we do feel very confident on is that it is spread by the incorporation of cattle that are infected with BSE, by being incorporated back into feed through the rendering process and then fed back to cattle and even other animals."
She said, "there's absolutely no evidence that it's spread from cow to cow through air or some other route."
Some researchers think the BSE agent is composed largely, if not entirely, of a self-replicating protein, referred to as a prion. Another theory argues that the agent is similar to a virus. Scientists do know that the agent is highly stable and resists freezing, drying and heating at normal cooking temperatures, such as those used for pasteurization and sterilization at usual temperatures and for usual times.
Health experts say that several types of human transmissible spongiform encephalopothies exist, but the most common form of the affliction in humans is an ailment called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. A newly recognized form of this ailment -- it is called "variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease," (or vCJD) -- was first reported in March 1996 in Britain. The variant, experts say, seems to affect mainly young patients -- the average age of victims was 29 -- and that the illness has a relatively long duration. The variant is strongly linked to exposure, probably through food, to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy.
Detwiler said this means that humans who have become sick have probably eaten an infected animal product.
"The theory is that through the ingestion of this high risk tissue when it was incorporated into certain food products it was what caused BSE to go into humans, and they call it variant CJD."
Through November of this year, 85 cases of vCJD have been reported in Britain, three in France and a single case in Ireland. Both BSE and its human manifestation are always fatal. There is no known cure and no preventive vaccine. The only way to control the spread of the disease is to destroy any animal suspected of harboring the disease.
As of Tuesday, Poland had banned beef from nine European Union countries. Croatia, Estonia, and Latvia have banned the import of beef from Germany and Spain for five years. Russia has instituted a ban on the import of beef from Spain and Ukraine banned imports of German beef.
The World Health Organization has recommended that all countries prohibit the use of tissues from cud-chewing animals such as sheep, goats and cows in feed and exclude tissues that are likely to contain the BSE agent from any animal or human food chain.
Tuesday, European Union farm ministers agreed to impose tough new measures to fight the spread of the disease. The measures include a minimum six-month ban on the use of meat and bone meal in all animal feed. The ministers approved a plan that calls for the EU to buy and destroy cattle over 30 months old that have not been tested for the disease.
********** UN Calls For Action Against AIDS In Eastern Europe
Copenhagen, 6 December (RFE/RL) -- In the wake of a disturbing report on the spread of HIV and AIDS in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the United Nations called on Tuesday for an intensified effort to turn back what officials describe as an epidemic.
In a joint statement from the World Health Organization, UNICEF -- the UN's children's' agency -- and the UNAIDS office, officials said, "we know the situation, we know what works. Now is the time for massive support and action from all countries and the international community."
Last week, on the observance of the UN's annual World AIDS Day, the WHO issued new data it said points to "an exploding HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe." The report said the number of people living with HIV has risen from 420,000 to more than 700,000 in just over a year. A majority of the victims are users of illegal drugs who contract the affliction by sharing contaminated needles, and the hardest-hit country is Russia.
HIV is the acronym for human immune deficiency virus. HIV causes AIDS, which stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. HIV is transmitted through sexual contact and through sharing contaminated needles. Infect mothers can also transmit the disease to their unborn babies. AIDS victims are especially vulnerable to many infections, including cancers. There is no known cure for AIDS and no vaccine against HIV.
Tuesday's UN statement said political will and leadership are key. The statement said the UN calls upon "all European Heads of State to utilize their national New Year's messages to declare their support for an action plan to stop this epidemic in their own countries, in Europe and beyond."
While most new infections are among injecting drug users, experts warn that a second wave of HIV infections spread by sexual contact could follow the current drug-driven epidemic and lead to a generalized epidemic in just three to four years. The statement said young people in eastern Europe are particularly at risk, reflecting instability in the wake of the rapid social and economic changes.
The UN said the international community has an important role to play. It can help mobilize national resources, train personnel, and provide technical guidance as needed. The UN said many countries, particularly those most affected -- such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine -- lack experience and expertise in this field.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health announced Monday that the United States will commit more than $100 million to AIDS research next year. The money will be spent on research programs to be conducted with international partners.
*********** WHO Seeks To Improve Internet Information Quality
Geneva, 6 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) contends there is too much information available on the Internet that is unreliable and even dangerous. The United Nations agency proposed last month to refine the Internet to ensure that people seeking health information are led to materials that meet high standards.
Specifically, WHO has proposed creation of what is called a "top level domain," for health topics. Domains are the part of the Internet address that help people find Internet sites in their field of interest. An example would be the designation ".com", to indicate a commercial venture, or ".org" to indicate a non-profit organization or ".edu", for an educational institution. The WHO proposal would establish ".health" for health information.
The proposal has been submitted to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN has the authority to prescribe the means by which domain names are added to the Internet system -- the worldwide network that links users who have the requisite computer equipment.
The WHO says there are more than 10,000 health sites on the Internet. WHO says users "have no way of finding their way through them, nor can they be sure about the accuracy or reliability of information." WHO's plan would establish a set of standards for health information, and then assign the ".health" designation to holders of health sites who pledge to uphold those standards.
ICANN is currently evaluating the WHO proposal.