International Authority Coming to Address 'Mad Cow' Fears

February 26, 2001

One of the world's leading authorities on mad cow disease is coming to Rochester to separate fact from fiction in regard to this increasingly important public-health issue.

Charles Weissmann, M.D., Ph.D., of the Neurogenetics Unit at the Imperial College School of Medicine at St. Mary's in London, will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 6, at the Rochester Museum and Science Center's Eisenhart Auditorium, 657 East Ave. After his talk, he will host a question-and-answer session with another well-known expert, Robert Griggs, M.D., Professor and Chair of Neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Weissmann is an internationally recognized authority on prion diseases - including mad cow disease - and the author of 206 scientific publications. Prions are the infectious agent that causes transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, a group of progressive, fatal diseases that affect the brain. They have long been a topic of great interest; two Nobel prizes have been awarded to researchers who study prion disease.

Three of the best-known prion diseases are Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which affects humans, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, and scrapie, which infects sheep.

Mad cow disease was first reported nearly a decade ago in Great Britain. Since 1996, nearly 100 Europeans have died from a variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, widely believed to be the human form of mad cow disease. Mad cow disease is wreaking havoc in Europe because of the potential for the disease to spread in people who have consumed meat and other meat products containing prions.

Although mad cow disease hasn't been spotted in the United States, there have been outbreaks of "mad deer," "mad elk," and "mad sheep." For instance:

  • Last summer, three flocks of sheep in Vermont were diagnosed with mad sheep disease.
  • In January, ABC News reported that mad deer disease, also known as chronic wasting disease, "has hit a full 15 percent of free-ranging deer and elk in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming."
  • In February, The Shawnee News-Star in Oklahoma reported that "a fatal brain ailment similar to mad cow disease has been found in a captive Oklahoma County elk herd, forcing officials to put 140 of the animals under quarantine."

As predators such as grizzly bears kill and eat deer and elk, it is possible they could contract a version of the disease and pass it along to other animals they have contact with, including cattle.

"Some people think of mad cow disease as being a European phenomenon," says Harris Gelbard, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "Although the U.S. doesn't import beef from places such as Great Britain or Germany, I think we can count on mad cow disease eventually making its way to America."

Some worry that people may develop a human form of the fatal, brain-crippling disease if they eat or use products made from cattle, such as some medicines, candies, and other food products made with gelatin. In Taiwan, the government is considering a ban on cosmetics made of cattle and sheep tissue from 13 European countries.

Although the American public doesn't seem overly concerned, the federal government is taking precautions. Two years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered a ban on blood from Great Britain to protect against the disease. People who lived for more than six months in the United Kingdom or Ireland between January 1980 and December 1996 can't donate blood.

In January, a FDA advisory panel voted to prohibit blood donations from people who have spent a total of at least 10 years in France, Ireland, and Portugal since 1980.

"The health and economic implications of mad cow disease have reached enormous proportions in Europe," says Robert Griggs, also the editor-in-chief of the journal Neurology. "These implications are likely to affect the U.S. in the near future."

Weissmann's visit is funded by the Schmitt Foundation, a local, private philanthropic foundation that funds the Schmitt Foundation Program on Integrative Brain Research at the University of Rochester Medical Center. As part of its commitment, the Schmitt Foundation funds a visiting-professor program three times annually.

The event is free to the public. For more information, call 716-275-6395.

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