(NaturalNews) A new screening test for variants of Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases (vCJD), currently in final clinical trials, will reportedly identify those who harbor the disease in their blood. Early indications suggest that 1 of every 4,000 people tests positive. This is a substantially higher number than health experts had estimated.
The blood test should be available to physicians within 18 months. Specific information about the ongoing clinical trials has been closely guarded, although reports of this groundbreaking test have appeared in U.K. newspapers such as Daily Mail as well as science publications around the world. Preliminary reports indicate that 95% of those found with vCJD in their blood may not go on to suffer from the full-blown disease. If true, these findings will have significant public policy as well as research implications.
Learning more about this test and "Mad Cow Disease" may not necessarily assuage public fears, despite official reassurances.
What is it?
The illness commonly known as "Mad Cow Disease" is actually a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Animal TSE diseases include scrapie in sheep and goats; chronic wasting disease in deer, elk and moose; bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle; and feline spongiform encephalopathy in cats. Human TSEs include vCJD as well as Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker syndrome, kuru and fatal familial insomnia.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was named after the researchers who identified the condition. In classic form it is a rare inherited disorder appearing in older people. The variants appear in much younger people.
What are the symptoms of vCJD?
The onset of symptoms can take anywhere from a few years to many decades. Studies of kuru show the incubation time for vCJD may be as long as 50 years.
The disease progresses due to the presence of abnormal and unusually long-lasting proteins called prions in the brain and spinal tissue. These prions form sponge-like holes in the brain. Early stages of the illness are characterized by psychiatric symptoms such as depression, memory loss or even psychosis. Nearly half of the patients in early stages have unusual sensory complaints such as perceived "stickiness" of the skin as well as neurological symptoms including balance problems, involuntary movements and lack of coordination. The disease progresses to gross lack of motor skills, muteness and dementia before death.
What causes it?
The highest incidence of vCJD transmission occurred in the U.K. due to the profit-oriented practice of feeding mammal by-products to herbivores such as cattle. Most scientists affirmed that these practices caused BSE which then spread, via meat products, to human consumers who went on to develop vCJD. These agricultural practices were banned. Similar policies were also largely banned in the U.S., although animal by-products in question such as brains, spinal cords and bone meal can still be used in feed destined for hogs, chickens and turkeys. These by-products are also permitted in pet food until a ban takes effect late April of 2009.
U.K. organic farmer and researcher Mark Purdy, author of the book Animal Pharm: One Man's Struggle to Discover the Truth about Mad Cow Disease and Variant CJD took a more controversial stance, claiming that environmental contamination caused prions to form in the brains of susceptible animals. He specifically targeted organophosphate insecticides and depleted soils as causative agents. He also argued that human neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's are related to contaminants from agriculture, manufacturing, munitions and nuclear tests. He collaborated with researchers from major universities and won several awards before his death in 2006.
How is it diagnosed?
The new blood test may prove an effective means of screening, but it isn't clear if those who test positive will be active carriers of vCJD or if it is possible to determine who will go on to develop a full-blown case of the disease. It has also been reported that one percent may be false positives.
At the present time there are no diagnostic tests available to check for vCJD before symptoms appear. MRI and spinal fluid tests are some procedures used for detection if symptoms are present. The most reliable confirmation of vCJD comes from post mortem biopsy of the brain.
What about blood donations?
Due to concerns about the potential for vCJD transmission, the American Red Cross does not permit people to donate blood if they've received a blood transfusion in the U.K. since 1980, or if they visited certain nations during a time of heightened potential for vCJD transmission (1980 to 1996).
The new blood test will make it easier to screen blood donors for vCJD, assuring a safer blood supply. But it highlights new issues. Millions of donors each year make it possible for others to receive life-saving transfusions. Yet once this test is a requirement for all prospective blood donors, thousands of those who charitably offer their blood will instead be informed that they test positive for vCJD. Many donors may prefer to avoid being tested for an incurable and fatal disease. This disincentive could reduce the availablity of necessary blood for trauma, surgical and other patients.
What about other implications of the test?
Screening tests for diseases carry wider ethical implications. Positive results bring a significant, long-lasting emotional toll. Those who have positive results are likely to make different choices, for example deciding against having children. There may be fears of social stigma. And under current private healthcare plans, it's possible that positive results on a vCJD test could increase insurance premiums or result in denied coverage. Added life insurance costs may be another consideration.
Is the food supply safe?
Any food containing prions is unsafe. In contaminated animals these prions are thought to be present in the brains and spinal cords. Prions are highly resilient. Unlike viruses or bacteria, prions can survive heat, disenfectants, UV light, even radiation.
Chronic wasting disease (CWD), a prion-related disease found in game animals such as deer and elk, has been found across a dozen states and into Canada. The Centers for Disease Control reports that CWD cannot be transmitted to humans. Considering the long incubation period to develop vCJD, from several years to many decades, that conclusion may be premature. Fact sheets available from many state wildlife departments caution hunters against shooting ill animals but assure them that with safe handling procedures the meat is safe.
It's known that cattle suffering from BSE are weak and may be unable to stand. After a cow tested positive for BSE in Washington state in 2003 the USDA ruled that downer cows could not enter the food supply. That ruling prohibits meat producers from slaughtering any animal unable to walk. A loophole permits such animals to be slaughtered after passing an initial inspection if they are inspected again. However even this lax regulation is not always followed as the spring 2008 scandal at the Chino Westland/Hallmark Meat Company proved. The Humane Society of the United States had demonstrated through undercover video that desperately ill cows at the Chino facility were forced into the slaughter box by such means as chains, electric shock, high intensity water and forklifts. This company had been a major supplier of meat products to the National School Lunch Program. Subsequent videos by the Humane Society show downer cows at slaughterhouses in other areas of the country. These non-ambulatory cattle are 49 to 58 times more likely to have BSE, according to a Swiss study.
The USDA uses a rapid-screen test for BSE on about one percent of the beef supply to assure consumers that U.S. meat is safe, but this federal agency prohibits beef producers from using the same test. A progressive Kansas meat supplier, Creekstone Farms, has been fighting this ruling in the courts. Creekstone won the first round but the USDA appealed. The appeal court found that the Virus-Serum-Toxin Act permits the USDA to prevent the testing as a "worthless" method of "treatment," ironic as the company would be testing carcasses and not treating live animals. The USDA stance may please large meat producers, but alienates foreign markets already wary of U.S. meat. Agricultural standards are higher in many other parts of the world. For example, every carcass is tested for BSE in Japan before it is released for sale.
What can I do?
Eatwild.com presents evidence that the safest beef products are from animals raised on a totally grass-fed diet. If you prefer, avoid eating meat entirely.
*Mandatory testing for all cattle brought to slaughter, before they enter the food chain. *Ban the feeding of blood, manure, and slaughterhouse waste to animals. *Stop harassing farmers and food processors who are interested in independently testing their own beef.
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