How to Prevent Harmful Infections

Preventing Mad Cow Disease

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Choosing certain cuts of beef can help decrease your chance of being exposed to mad cow disease.

People exposed to mad cow disease can develop Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which usually results in death a year or so after symptoms are exhibited. Learn more about what causes mad cow disease and how you can avoid eating products that could be potentially infected.

Mad Cow Disease Information

The cause of mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, is still being debated. Most authorities, however, hold that misshapen prion proteins cause the disease. These misfolded proteins are infectious when directly inoculated into the brain, injected into the body, or eaten. Because prions lack nucleic acid, they cannot be attacked the same way viruses are. In fact, prions are virtually indestructible.

Outbreaks of human prion disease have been caused by contaminated growth hormone produced from cadavers, from ritual cannibalism, and from eating meat from cattle with mad cow disease.

Mad cow disease is a fatal infection that causes neurological degeneration in cattle and was first noted in the 1980s. The brain wastes away and becomes spongelike, and the central nervous system is wrecked.

According to the World Health Organization, infected cattle can carry the disease for four to five years before showing symptoms. However, once symptoms appear, the degenerative disease causes death within 12 months. Signs of mad cow disease include odd changes in temperament (including extreme nervousness), weight loss, and lack of coordination.

Although the exact origin of mad cow disease is unknown, it is most often transmitted to animals through manufactured high-protein feed that contains the brain or spinal cord remnants of infected animals.

A fatal brain disease in people called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is a result of being exposed to beef infected by mad cow disease. Like mad cow disease, vCJD causes spongelike holes in the brain and can incubate for years, but it is difficult to diagnose before it causes severe neurological damage and triggers brain deterioration; death usually occurs within a year or so. Other animals, including large felines in zoos, have acquired the infection from eating affected meat scraps.

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is different from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which was discovered more than 100 years ago. People with vCJD are usually much younger and die in 12 months to 18 months instead of four months to six months. Differences are also apparent upon microscopic examination of affected brain tissue. Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was first reported in 1996.

Who's at Risk for Mad Cow Disease?

Anyone who eats beef from an animal with mad cow disease is at risk. About 150 worldwide cases of vCJD have occurred to date, nearly all associated with beef consumption in the United Kingdom. Experts are still debating whether a larger epidemic of this disease in humans will happen. Mad cow disease has also been reported to a lesser degree in other European countries, Japan, Canada, and even the United States.

Defensive Measures Against Mad Cow Disease

If the risk of having your brain turn to mush has you contemplating a few dietary changes, you should consider the following:

  • According to the CDC, solid cuts of meat carry less risk of exposing people to the agents that cause vCJD. T-bone steak (which is a cut from near the cow's spinal column), ground beef, sausage, hot dogs, or any meat that can contain bits of brain tissue or spinal cord carry the highest risk.
  • Replacing some red meats with poultry and fish, or skipping meat altogether, can reduce your risk.
  • Watch what you eat when you travel. If you visit countries where mad cow disease has been reported, including the United Kingdom, skip the beef entree.
  • Milk and products made from milk are not thought to be a means of transmittal.

Cooking your hamburgers extremely well-done won't protect you, because prions aren't destroyed during any cooking process. However, your chances of running across this infection are rare because meat products cannot be imported into the United States from countries with mad cow outbreaks, and the Food and Drug Administration has stopped allowing importation of dietary supplement and cosmetic ingredients that contain bovine products from certain at-risk countries.

Another frightening infection in the world today is what's called the "flesh-eating" disease. Learn more about it -- and how to prevent it -- on the next page.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.