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    Alabama Cow Has Mad Cow Disease

    Cow Never Entered the Animal or Human Food Chains, U.S. Official Says

    What Causes Mad Cow Disease?

    BSE is a transmissible, slowly progressive, degenerative, and fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of adult cattle. It was first reported among cattle in the U.K. in 1986. Researchers believe that the infectious agent that causes mad cow disease is an abnormal version of a protein called a prion. For reasons still unknown, this protein becomes altered and destroys nervous system tissue -- the brain and spinal cord.

    Cooking has not been shown to kill the BSE agent, according to information posted on the USDA's web site. Common methods to eliminate disease-causing organisms in food, like heat, do not affect prions.

    There is no evidence to suggest that milk and dairy products carry the agent that causes BSE, states the USDA. Prions only seem to live in nervous system tissue.

    Does Mad Cow Disease Affect Humans?

    A human version of mad cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is believed to be caused by eating beef products contaminated with central nervous system tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from cattle infected with mad cow disease.

    For this reason, the USDA requires that all brain and spinal cord materials be removed from high-risk cattle -- older cattle, animals that are unable to walk, and any animal that shows any signs of a neurological problem. These cow products do not enter the U.S. food supply. The USDA believes this practice effectively safeguards U.S. public health from vCJD.

    How Is vCJD Diagnosed?

    All age groups can be affected by vCJD, which is very hard to diagnose until it has nearly run its course.

    In its early stages, people have symptoms related to the nervous system, like depression and loss of coordination. Later in the illness, dementia develops. But only in advanced stages of the disease can brain abnormalities be detected by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging); vCJD is fatal, usually within 13 months of the onset of symptoms.

    It is extremely unlikely that anyone would get vCJD from eating food purchased in the U.S. To prevent mad cow disease from entering the country, since 1989 the federal government has prohibited the importation of certain types of live animals from countries where mad cow disease is known to exist.

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