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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Op Ed | VegSource Interactive, Inc.

The Unthinkable:
Alzheimers Caused by Meat?

Spongiform (or brain-wasting) diseases are generally divided into two classes: those which arise from eating infected tissue from animals (including humans), and those which are thought to be "spontaneous" or "of unknown origin."

The type which come from eating or handling infected tissue include Kuru, a disease found in a South Pacific cannibal population traced to handling brain material of their deceased relatives, bovine spongiform encelphalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), which comes from eating infected cow meat, and transmissible mink encephalopathy (TME), which arises from mink being fed "downer" cows in the U.S. (See related TME article - opens new browser)

In humans, eating meat from a diseased cow causes a brain-wasting disease called New Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or nvCJD. A closely related brain-wasting disease called Sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or sCJD, is thought to kill about 300 people a year in the U.S. The full numbers of CJD victims aren't actually known because CJD is not a reportable disease like syphilis. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) only surveys "death certificate" CJD, meaning if an end-stage CJD victim catches pneumonia and dies, this doesn't get tracked as a CJD case by the CDC, but is counted as a "pneumonia" death.

In addition, CJD victims have been known to be misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's patients, unless family members insist on an autopsy and examination of brain tissues. (In fact, a recent study by CJD researchers at Yale University found 14% of patients thought to have died of Alzheimer's actually died of CJD; a larger study from the University of Pennsylvania found a misdiagnosis rate of 5%, and estimated there may be 200,000 cases of CJD in the U.S. each year which are misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's.) (See related New Science article - opens new browser.)


 



About 15% of CJD is thought to be a hereditary disease, a "bad gene" which mutates ("autosomal dominant prion gene mutation") causing the disease to spontaneously appear and turn the victim's brain to mush.

But researchers in France were dealt a huge surprise in a recent test when mice in a control group contracted CJD from a lamb infected with scrapie. Previously, the brain wasting disease scrapie was not thought to be transmissible in this way, and more experiments are now underway, with Germany tracking it's human CJD cases to try to determine if infected lamb may have been a common denominator in some cases there.

We already know that studies show dementia and Alzheimer's disease are both found at significantly lower rates in vegetarian populations. (see related article - new browser)

It is entirely possible the current epidemic of Alzheimer's Disease may be like spongiform diseases which attack the brain - brought on by what you eat. New clues regularly point in this direction, and this theory is supported by recent news that cholesterol lowering drugs (which attempt to combat cholesterol buildup inherent to diets heavy in animal products) can also help and impact Alzheimer's.

Spongiform diseases have been found to be connected to the ingestion of the meat of animals, so shouldn't we be examining U.S. cows to see if they contain prions which could be a causative factor in these serious diseases?

The government doesn't think so. According to Linda Detwiler who heads the USDA's BSE surveillance unit, there is no line item for BSE surveillance in the USDA budget, which means they must try to carry out that activity at the expense of other programs for animal health (tuberculosis, brucellosis, avian influenza, etc.).

The current administration has proposed funding research into mad cow disease -- a first -- and President Bush has allocated five million dollars for that purpose. 

But five million dollars is not what a country spends which is seriously examining this problem.

Just one lab -- the lab of Stanley Prusiner, who did the research which led to the discovery of infective prions -- has an annual budget of $7 million. The small country of Austria already spends an estimated $18 million annually on its own mad cow surveillance program. It tests 15,000 cows a month, compared to the 170 cows tested in the U.S. each month. Austria has thus far been successful in demonstrating to it's people that it's cows are free of infectious prions. (The U.S. simply verbally assures its public that "there is no BSE here," while the Austrian government insists their cattle industry back it up with scientific proof. This stands in stark contrast to the U.S.' s "all talk and no action" stance.)

Over the past three years Congress has provided $25 billion in special assistance to compensate farmers for falling commodity prices and crop losses caused by weather, including over a billion dollars to bail out the hog and beef industries. To keep prices up, the government makes huge meat purchases and donates it to the school lunch program. 

In addition, the USDA currently has a $17.9 billion discretionary fund to handle issues it deems important as they arise, and the White House has authorized a total of $32.1 million to protect against foot and mouth disease.

Isn't it time the U.S. government takes potential health threats to humans as seriously as it does the potential financial impact to meat producers?

Jeffrey Nelson
vegsource.com

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