05 Apr BSE: Mad People Disease?
Are you one of those people who enjoy roast beef on a Sunday, or fancy a beef burger when you’re in town? Then perhaps you are feeling a little nervous, and maybe you decided not to pop into your favourite fast food joint, or decided that chicken for the Sunday dinner would make a nice change.
The latest revelations by the British Government are no great surprise; that there may be a link between eating meat from animals infected with BSE and catching a disease which reduces your brain to a mushy pulp. The human form (allegedly) of mad cow disease is CJD (mad people disease), which has the same ultimate result as BSE, it leaves you dead.
The statement by the British Minister for Agriculture has led to extreme reactions all over the world, which could result in the complete and utter destruction of the British cattle industry. Britain will not suffer alone, all of Europe has been suffering the backlash of these embargo’s on Britain’s beef exports. Japan and the Far East, which account for some 390 million of Irish beef exports, have placed a blanket ban on all beef exports from Europe.
Both MacDonald and Burger King in Britain have made statements to the effect that they will no longer serve British beef in their outlets, while feeling that there is nothing to worry about, they nonetheless must respond to the public’s loss of confidence. The fast food chains here say that they use Irish beef exclusively, so there is nothing to worry about.
The Irish Minister for Agriculture, Ivan Yates, has come out in favour of banning British beef throughout Europe, and presumably the world. This is an obvious attempt to disassociate Ireland from the taint of Britain’s BSE epidemic. He also went on to say that from now on all the entire herd will be destroyed when any animals in the herd are found to be infected. Previously only the infected animal was destroyed, which means those cattle incubating the disease may have gotten into the food chain. He said he intended to increase customs and Garda precautions to insure that cattle from the North were not smuggled into the Republic. If the cattle export industry here is to regain the ground lost in the blanket banning of European beef, it will have to show the world that there is no distribution of banned British cattle through this country. This is assuming that we can ask the markets outside Europe to be so geographically precise.
There were 170,000 reported cases of BSE last year in Britain, and there is no guarantee that this is the true figure. It is not unknown for a farmer to conceal outbreaks. The practice of feeding using sheep offal as feed for cattle has been stopped, it is thought that BSE is a ‘species jumper’, and that it crossed over from sheep, where it was called scrape. With such evidence that cattle fed with sheep brains infected with scrape then contracted BSE, it seems amazing that governments could boldly claim that it was impossible for the disease to be contracted by humans. Fattening cattle for slaughter with feed enriched with offal seems to have made good economic sense, but the folly of it is apparent now. There is also the argument that cattle are not meat eaters by nature, and as well as imprisoning them and subjecting them to intolerable conditions, we are turning them into cannibals.
Neither BSE or CJD are curable, nor are they even treatable. The disease in both cases reduces the tissues to the brain to a thick soup over a period of time. The obvious effects in humans are similar to the outward sings of Senile Dementia, loss of memory, change of character, reduction of mental capablities, and so on. The sexually transmitted disease Syphilis is also of the same Spongiform genus, reducing tissue to mush. All of these are viruses, and very active viruses at that. As such they cannot be vaccinated against, as they mutate too often. It is this mutation which causes the great variety of influenza, the ‘flu is also a virus. Catching the ‘flu once is no protection against contracting a different variant in the future. Thus the difficulty in developing a vaccine, there are simply too many mutations to cover.
Bacteria are self-contained organisms, whilst viruses need to use the facilities of the host to reproduce. They consist of a protein coat around a fragment of RNA. RNA is the coded information which every living thing uses to reproduce itself. It is the blueprint. The virus uses the protein coat to both protect the RNA, and to gain entry to the host. The coat has a very definite appearance, readily identifiable to the host organism’s immune defense system as a ‘friendly’. The virus then injects it’s RNA into a cell in the host, which will then produce the virus, using the injected RNA as the blueprint. In this way, the host organism aids in it’s own destruction, by in fact enabling the virus to reproduce. The virus has no machinery or facility to accomplish this on its own, it consists of only the information describing how to build copies of itself. It’s up to the invaded cell itself to do the actual production work.
In BSE and CJD, it is the cells of the brain which the virus finds the most attractive, and thus it these cells it chooses to provide it’s production facilities. The cells are destroyed when they explode with the vast quantities of virus material inside them, and the infection process then continues. In AIDS, which is a retro-virus also, it is the white blood cells themselves which are targeted by the virus, which is why those with AIDS die of secondary infections , because their Immune system has been destroyed.
This makes obvious the difficulty in fighting a virus which has become entrenched, in order to destroy the virus, it is necessary to destroy the host cell. In the case of CJD (and BSE), destroying these host cells would result in the death of the brain. Not a very acceptable solution.
Knowing all that, do you still feel like a double cheese burger? I know I don’t.
(This article was written in 1996)