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HOME > PAST ISSUE > July-August 2004 > Article Detail

FEATURE ARTICLE

Mad-Cow Disease in Cattle and Human Beings

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy provides a case study in how to manage risks while still learning the facts

Paul Brown

Mad-cow disease was first discovered in the mid-1980s; it began grabbing headlines about 10 years later when it became apparent that people could be infected by eating contaminated beef. The resulting illness in human beings, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), is gruesome and fatal and has now afflicted more than 150 people, most of them in the United Kingdom. The worldwide shock that accompanied recognition of the disease’s transmissibility from cow to human nearly destroyed the British cattle industry and spurred a wave of research into the strangeness of the infectious agent-a single protein, called a prion-which lacks nucleic acids. Mad-cow disease reared its head this past December when two sick cows were discovered on farms in Canada and the United States. Our author reviews the current state of knowledge and some mysteries surrounding the disease.


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