Skip to content

Mad Cow Disease

Font Size

Overview

What is mad cow disease, and does it infect people?

Mad cow disease is a fatal disease that slowly destroys the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) in cattle. It also is known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

People cannot get mad cow disease. But in rare cases they may get a human form of mad cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which is fatal.

Recommended Related to

Yellow Fever

Yellow fever is a viral infection transmitted by a bite from infected mosquitoes most commonly found in parts of South America and Africa. When transmitted to humans, the yellow fever virus can damage the liver and other internal organs and be potentially fatal.  The World Health Organization estimates there are 200,000 cases of yellow fever worldwide each year, resulting in 30,000 deaths. Yellow fever appears to be on the rise internationally, due to a decreased immunity to infection among...

Read the Yellow Fever article > >

This can happen if you eat nerve tissue (the brain and spinal cord) of cattle that were infected with mad cow disease. Over time, vCJD destroys the brain and spinal cord.

There is no evidence that people can get mad cow disease or vCJD from eating muscle meat—which is used for ground beef, roasts, and steaks—or from consuming milk or milk products.

People with vCJD cannot spread it to others through casual contact.

People who have spent a lot of time (at least 3 months) in places where mad cow disease has been found are not allowed to give blood in the United States or Canada.2, 1 This is to help prevent vCJD from spreading.

What causes mad cow disease and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD)?

Experts are not sure what causes mad cow disease or vCJD.

The leading theory is that the disease is caused by infectious proteins called prions (say "PREE-ons"). In affected cows, these proteins are found in the brain, spinal cord, and small intestine. There is no proof that prions are found in muscle meat (such as steak) or in milk.

When a cow is slaughtered, parts of it are used for human food and other parts are used in animal feed. If an infected cow is slaughtered and its nerve tissue is used in cattle feed, other cows can become infected.

People can get vCJD if they eat the brain or spinal cord tissue of infected cattle.

How common are mad cow disease and vCJD?

The first case of vCJD was reported in 1996. Since then, there have been a few cases of vCJD reported in the world. Most of the cases have been in countries that are part of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland).

1|2

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: March 21, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
Next Article:

Hot Topics

WebMD Video: Now Playing

Click here to wach video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Which sex is the worst about washing up? Why is it so important? We’ve got the dirty truth on how and when to wash your hands.

Click here to watch video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Popular Slideshows & Tools on WebMD

MS Overview
Recognizing symptoms.
feet
Solutions for 19 types.
pregnancy test and calendar
Helping you get pregnant.
build a better butt
How to build a better butt.
lone star tick
How to identify that bite.
woman standing behind curtains
How it affects you.
brain scan with soda
Tips to avoid complications.
row of colored highlighter pens
Tips for living better.
psoriasis
How to keep flares at bay.
woman dreaming
What Do Your Dreams Say About You?
spinal compression fracture
Treatment options.

Women's Health Newsletter

Find out what women really need.