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

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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."

"We have more than 250 veterinarians that respond to suspicious foreign animal diseases in the U.S.," Curlept tells WebMD. "We are fairly confident, but we are not complacent, and are trying to learn as much as we can from Europeans. If BSE is here, we can either stop it or find it before it becomes widespread."

The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston had been working under a USDA grant to evaluate the situation in the U.S. should mad cow disease arise here.

George Gray, director of the program in food safety and agriculture there, tells WebMD, "I consider there to be a very small risk to human health or cattle for the U.S. I haven't changed my diet. I still eat beef."

But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, he says.

Gray credits the safety of the U.S. food supply to the preventive vigilance of the FDA/USDA. "They have taken a lot of action in a situation where we haven't had the disease," he says. "Europe is scrambling to do what we are already doing [after they've already found the disease there]."

For example, the U.S. has instituted the measure that bans the use of animal protein in animal feeds meant for ruminants, or animals that chew cud. "This is a pretty amazing step for a country without the disease to take," says Gray.

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