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06/09/01 . n/a . Evening Standard . UK
New CJD alert as deaths increase
Deaths from CJD have risen by 20 per cent in a year, scientists announced today.
Estimates of the number of cases of the human form of mad cow disease, which range from a few hundred to 140,000, may have to be revised substantially upwards, according to new research by the Government's surveillance unit.
"The incidence is increasing and the rate of death is increasing," James Ironside, professor of clinical neuropathology at the University of Edinburgh will tell the British Association in Glasgow today.
"This has happened over the last 12 months. It is a sustained pattern, and it is a matter of concern."
The first identification of an elderly patient, aged 74, makes it possible that a number of cases have gone undiagnosed, and that the real number of deaths is already significantly higher than the 102 reported.
The new figures show that people in the North of England and Scotland are "about twice" as likely to get the disease than those in the South, probably because of eating habits, Professor Ironside says.
They are more likely to have eaten pies and burgers containing "mechanically reclaimed meat" - stripped from bone with a pressure hose. It is believed the practice, which was routine from the late Seventies to the early Nineties, may have contributed significantly to the spread of variant CJD.
However, no information is available to scientists because the meat industry has consistently refused to divulge it. Although millions of tonnes of the meat are known to have been produced, nobody has admitted using it in their products. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee says it has been "continually thwarted" in its efforts to extract information.
The eventual death toll cannot be predicted, Professor Ironside says. However, all those who have died showed a particular genetic characteristic which occurs in just over a third of the British population.
Further studies are under way to find a test for the disease that could be used for large-scale screening. A number of compounds are under investigation as possible treatments, although at present the disease is invariably fatal.