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

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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.

Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also called BSE. It is a degenerative, central nervous system disease that was first diagnosed in cattle in Great Britain in 1986. Affected animals act crazy, or "mad," displaying changes in mood such as nervousness or agitation and having difficulty standing up. Such cattle usually die within two weeks to six months.

Eating infected beef has been linked to a human version of the disease called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. This has struck more than 80 people in England and about three people in France.

The disease also has been confirmed in domestic cattle in Belgium, France, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland. Worldwide, there have been more than 178,000 cases since the disease was first found in the U.K.

Ed Curlept, a spokesperson for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, based in Riverdale, Md., is fairly confident that the U.S. has safeguards in place to stop the disease from entering this country's food supply, or to at least find it before it becomes widespread.

"This has been on the top of our priority list for 10 years," he says. "We have looked at over 12,000 animal brains, and we continue to look for BSE in this country by looking at 'downer' cows that can't move."

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