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Riding Herd on Mad Cow Disease

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For instance, there is little reason to believe that vaccines might contain the infectious mad cow agent, Lumpkin says. But there is, he says, a good reason to believe that a small number of European dietary supplements may pose a risk because they are made with highly infective cow tissues, such as brain parts.

As a result, state and federal authorities already have stepped up their surveillance. In New York City, for example, officials recently banned the sale of German-made candy because it was made with gelatin derived from beef.

Although the local officials eventually concluded that there never was any real danger, Lumpkin says those officials acted appropriately because of the potential public impact.

"To a degree, when you compare the risk of this entity to other risks people are asked to take every day -- it pales in comparison," he tells WebMD.

The good news, Lumpkin says, is that federal regulators have now taken a number of steps to prevent the emergence of mad cow disease in the U.S. At present, he notes, federal law already prohibits the practice of feeding animal proteins to cattle, which is believed to be the original cause of the European epidemic.

In response to the heightened public concern, the FDA also is considering banning blood donations from long-term residents of France and Portugal, and tightening the oversight of dietary supplements made with animal parts from countries with confirmed cases of mad cow disease, Lumpkin says.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross, which collects half the nation's blood supply, is considering an even tighter ban on blood donations from people who have spent time abroad.

With blood safety paramount, "in our judgment, it makes sense to us to include all of Europe, because that's where BSE has spread, and spread extensively," American Red Cross President and CEO Bernadine Healy, MD, tells WebMD. "We are going to extend the ban to Europe. We are still finalizing the time periods, but we think it will be one year in Europe. We are still trying to decide if it will be 3 or 6 months for U.K."

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