Should You Worry About the Mad Cow Disease?

Should You Worry About the Mad Cow Disease?

Have you heard of the mad cow disease? Are you worried that you might get infected with this disease? Read on to learn more about this health issue.

Mad cow disease is a fatal disease that affected cows in the United Kingdom during the 1990s. People who unfortunately ate beef that’s infected with the mad cow disease became ill with the same disease, which experts called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or CJD.

The good thing is that the agriculture experts were able to trace the origins of the mad cow disease to the cattle feeds that had infected cows’ nervous system tissues. With stricter agricultural practices, the incidence of the disease was controlled and reduced significantly.

Now, do we have the assurance that humans will never get infected with mad cow disease ever again? There’s no assurance, however, strict industry practices, particularly in the United States, make sure that the beef that is sold in the market is not tainted with mad cow disease. The government implements strict rules against feeding the cows with the nervous system of other cows.

Mad Cow Disease Defined

Mad cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, is so called because the infected cows go crazy. Symptoms of the disease include nervousness, lack of coordination and aggression until eventually the cow dies. The disease was first discovered in 1986, but had its peak in 1993 when 1,000 cows in the United Kingdom got the disease every week. In 2007, 184,500 cows had been infected with mad cow disease in the U.K. region alone.

In the United States, only 3 cases of mad cow disease were identified: one each in Washington (2003), Texas (2005) and Alabama (2006). The infected cows were properly disposed of to control the possible spread of the disease.

How Does the Mad Cow Disease Develop?

The mad cow disease begins to develop when the molecules of the cellular prion protein inside the cow’s body start to malfunction. The anomalous molecules clump together in the tissues of the nervous system, in the nerve endings and in the spinal column until they cause holes in the brain.

Researchers believe that the feeds were contaminated with the abnormal prion protein from ground carcasses of cows. Feeding the healthy cows with these feeds resulted in the outbreak of the disease. It’s still unknown how the infection ever started, but scientists think that it is a case of genetic mutation.

Humans Infected with the Mad Cow Disease

Variant CJD, a disease that attacks the human brain is fatal. It has been associated with the mad cow disease because both have similar symptoms and one was discovered a few years after the other.

CJD affected 209 people from 11 countries since 1996. 168 victims lived in the United Kingdom and three were from the United States.

Most of the people affected by variant CJD in the United Kingdom were young, registering a median age of 28 at the time of death. The symptoms of the disease include progressive mental impairment, uncontrolled muscle jerks as well as blindness. Before going into a coma, patients generally suffer from the inability to speak.

The disease presents an incubation period of 6 months to two years. This means that a person may eat a contaminated beef now, but show symptoms of CJD after several years. The only hint that the doctors have of the CJD is the early onset of dementia. The confirmation that the patient’s case is indeed CJD happens only after the brain autopsy or biopsy of the patient. The same is true for cows, which can only be diagnosed with mad cow disease after death.

The Possibility of Mad Cow Disease Threat Today

The CJD outbreak peaked in the year 2000 when 28 people died in the United Kingdom. In 2008, only one case of CJD was diagnosed.

When the CJD outbreak occurred in the United Kingdom, the U.S. government forbids cattle farmers to use feeds with animal parts as a precaution against the mad cow disease. As a continuous effort to protect consumers, the USDA also forbids the sale of beef from cows that are too weak to stand up during slaughter since March 2009.

Preventive Measure against the Mad Cow Disease

Personally taking steps to protect yourself from mad cow disease would mean, first and foremost, avoiding meat that may have nervous system tissues. Ask the vendor about the beef he is selling if the cow was grass-fed or not. Then do not buy bone-in cuts or beef products, such as cow brains, neck bones, head cheese, oxtail, cheek meat and chopped or ground beef.

An extreme option is not to eat beef at all. But that is not really necessary. The USDA says that the probability of having beef with BSE on the dinner table is 4 to 7 out of 42 million cattle. So, there’s no need to be afraid of a mad cow disease threat today.

Photo credits: “Crazy Cow” by David DeHetre via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Categories: Health

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