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Mad Cows and Sick Sheep: Why the European Epidemic Shouldn't Change Your Travel Plans

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BSE, or "mad-cow disease," is thought to be transmitted by a protein fragment known as a prion. As with other spongiform encephalopathies, BSE causes the affected animal's brain to develop holes -- therefore becoming spongelike in appearance; the animal eventually dies. A human variant, human spongiform encephalopathy, causes the degenerative dementia known as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Humans may also be susceptible to BSE, but that isn't yet clear.

Prions are resistant to conventional sterilization techniques. The infection may be spread from prions present in the affected animal's central nervous system, such as the spinal cord and brain.

Techniques for preventing the spread of both illnesses to the U.S. are similar, says John Maas, DVM.

"Live animals from the United Kingdom and from the European Union are banned, as are raw meat products from affected areas," says Maas, a veterinarian at the University of California-Davis.

To prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also has several travel restrictions posted on its web site. People traveling in affected countries must:

  • Avoid farms and barns, as well as stockyards, animal laboratories, packing houses, zoos, fairs, or other animal facilities for five days before coming to the U.S.
  • All clothing and outerwear should be laundered or dry-cleaned, and all dirt and soil should be removed from shoes, as well as soiled luggage and personal items, with a bleach-dampened cloth.
  • Contact with livestock or wildlife should be avoided for five days after entering the U.S., particularly for people traveling from farms in infected locales to visit or work on farms in the U.S. Hosts for such travelers should provide them with a clean set of clothing, to be worn after the visitor showers and shampoos thoroughly. The traveling clothes should be laundered or dry-cleaned immediately.

Should these concerns cause you to forgo your trip to the U.K. or other destinations?

"Absolutely not," says Mark Blackwell, DVM, a veterinarian in the U.K. and director of marketing and international sales for Antec International, which manufactures a disinfectant for foot-and-mouth disease.

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