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Mad Cow Disease: U.S. Experts Work to Stop It Before It Starts


WebMD Health News

Jan. 26, 2001 -- We haven't seen it here yet, but the U.S. is ready for mad cow disease if it should find its way into our cattle supply. The FDA and other health agencies, including the American Red Cross, are watching, waiting, and planning as they work to stave off the epidemic that is spreading across Western Europe.

Even though there has never been a case here, import restrictions on cattle from the U.K. have been in place since 1989, and efforts at active surveillance of our cattle supply started in 1990.

In the most recent development, federal health officials quarantined 1,000 heads of cattle in Texas because a feed mill announced it may have broken the rules governing the preparation of cattle feed. Under these regulations, cows and sheep are not to be fed products containing animal parts, in order to prevent the spread of the disease. But the feed company told the FDA that some of the livestock could have eaten bone meal made from other U.S. cattle. It is just a potential risk, since mad cow disease hasn't been reported in this country, but officials want to investigate.

The FDA has reported that this is not an isolated incident, however, as hundreds of feed makers have been violating the regulations in making their products. Members of the cattle industry will be meeting with the government on Monday Jan. 29, in order to get more businesses to step up their compliance to the rules.

The FDA has also been investigating the risks of contracting the disease in other ways. Researchers are not sure if mad cow disease can be transmitted through blood transfusions, for example. But an advisory committee to the FDA recently recommended widening a ban on blood donations to include long-term residents of France, Ireland, and Portugal to make sure mad cow disease stays out of the U.S. blood supply.

Anyone who lived in any one of these countries for 10 years or more from 1980 on should not be allowed to donate blood for the time being, according to the advisory panel. This committee stopped short of recommending a similar ban for all of Western Europe.

The FDA doesn't have to follow recommendations of its advisory councils, but it usually does. About one year ago, the FDA banned blood donations from any American who spent just six months or more in Britain from 1980 to 1996. Some critics say that restricting who can donate blood may do more harm than good, because our blood supply is already low.

There has also been concern in the U.S. that certain vaccines and/or dietary supplements that use animal protein or glandular extracts, respectively, may be contaminated. The FDA already has issued warnings that supplement makers and pharmaceutical companies should vigorously monitor this to prevent contaminated products from reaching U.S. consumers, but the companies may not be honoring these recommendations or following them as closely as they should. Therefore, the FDA is considering cracking down on regulations that are already in place.

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