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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

The Basics of Mad Cow Disease

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What Are the Symptoms of vCJD?

The disease can affect all age groups and is very hard to diagnose until it has nearly run its course. In the early stages of vCJD, people have symptoms related to the nervous system, like depression and loss of coordination. Later in the illness, dementia develops. But only in advanced stages of the disease can brain abnormalities be detected by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). vCJD is fatal, usually within 13 months of the onset of symptoms.

Is it Possible to Get vCJD From Eating Food Purchased in the U.S.?

It is extremely unlikely that this would happen. To prevent mad cow disease from entering the country, since 1989 the federal government has prohibited the importation of certain types of live animals from countries where mad cow disease is known to exist. This ban includes meat products used in human, animal, and pet foods. In addition, prohibiting high-risk animals from entering the food supply and the removal of central nervous system tissue from the food supply helps assures that BSE is not a risk to consumers.

Can You Get vCJD From Drinking Milk From an Infected Cow?

Milk and milk products are not believed to pose any risk for transmitting mad cow disease to humans. Experiments have shown that milk from mad cow-infected cows has not caused infections.

What About Other Products Made From Cow By-Products?

The FDA stops the importation of cosmetic and dietary supplement ingredients containing bovine materials from animals originating in the 33 countries where mad cow disease has been found or from animals at risk of being infected.

What Is the Current Risk of vCJD to Americans Traveling Abroad?

According to the CDC, the current risk of acquiring vCJD from any specific country appears to be extremely small. But that cannot be precisely determined because cattle products from one country might be distributed and consumed in others.

How Long Have Health Officials Been Concerned About Mad Cow Disease?

Mad cow disease has been of great concern since 1986, when it was first reported among cattle in the U.K. At its peak in January 1993, almost 1,000 new cases per week were identified. Concern about this disease grew significantly in 1996 when an association between mad cow disease and vCJD in humans was discovered.

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