Risk of mad cow disease (CJD) during surgery


MPs have warned that the government has a ‘casual attitude’ to mad cow disease in humans.

The Science and Technology Committee stated that the low incidence of the disease is being used justification for the inaction of authorities. The committee has placed emphasis on their concerns regarding the contamination risk during surgery and blood donation.

The Department of Health has said that they are viewing this issue in an extremely serious light.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) attacks the brain, but it can remain dormant for several years.

Researchers estimate that one in 2000 people in Britain is a carrier of the disease, which is linked to eating beef which has been contaminated. Since the identification of the disease during 1995, 177 deaths have occurred in the UK which has been linked to it.

A report by the committee stated than tens of thousands of people may be ‘silent’ carriers of the prions which cause this disease. It stated that blood transfusions may be a source of transmission and has called for more to be done to test and filter donated blood.

It stated that prions are not able to be removed from surgical equipment by using standard methods and said that between January 2010 and March 2013, 43 instances of exposure to a type of CJD during surgery has occurred. Most of the cases would have arisen from operating on patients who had not yet been diagnosed.

The chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, Andrew Miller, said that variant CJD is a terrible disease and is grateful that the cases are extremely rare now.

He said that there is huge uncertainty about the level of this risk and the government said that they are approaching this with caution.

However, Mr Miller stated that the committee’s inquiry has indicated that the government’s attitude towards vCJD now is much less precautionary that it was before. He added that recent policy appears to be driven less by precaution than by economic prudence and living in hope that the worst is over.

He said that the optimism of the government is not supported by the evidence that is available.

The report has asked that the government look at the threat from donated blood and introduce technologies which will allow for the filtering and testing for prions in the donated blood.

A spokesman from the Department of Health said that CJD is a devastating disease and they view it in an extremely serious light. It is for this reason that they are providing ring-fenced funding in excess of £5m annually for surveillance and research.

The government is continuing its work with independent researchers and experts to ensure that any public risk is minimised, particularly as far as instrument decontamination and blood tests are concerned. The spokesman stated that a response to the report will be provided in due course.

A professor of neuroscience at University College London, John Hardy, said that mad cow disease and the new variant CJD was a disastrous result of poor animal carcass handling during the late 1980s and was boosted by a slow government reaction to diseased meat reaching the human food chain in the years thereafter.

He said that it was fortunate that only 200 people died at the time.

He added that vigilance should be maintained to prevent recurrence of the disease through medical infection and the government should maintain scrutiny of this problem.

Image Credit: Beverley Goodwin


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Emma Brown

Emma graduated in 2005 from the University of York with a degree in English Literature. A huge passion for writing and health topics, Emma is a perfect match for Health News UK. Hobbies include; cooking, writing (of course), musicals and her 2 dogs.

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