BSE fears unwarranted, say experts

Infectious disease experts say the public should take a Valium and calm its fears over bovine spongiform encephalopathy and its human counterpart.

“You need to put things in perspective,” said Lorne Babiuk, director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization.

While it’s true there is a proven link between the cattle ailment and variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, a lethal brain disease that affects humans, only 139 people have died from vCJD worldwide.

By contrast, two million people die every year from tuberculosis, said Babiuk. Half a million children succumb to the effects of rotavirus diarrhea annually.

“But somehow they don’t get that super-fantastic press because it happens year after year after year.”

BSE and vCJD have captured the world’s attention much the same way that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome has. Yet a disease like influenza, which kills 35,000 North Americans every year, barely warrants a headline.

“There are many other infectious agents that are hugely more dangerous to society (than vCJD),” said Babiuk.

Even other livestock-related food-borne illnesses are deadlier than vCJD, but they don’t garner anywhere near the media attention that BSE has.

Few people are familiar with camphylobacter, but they should be. More than 95 percent of animals carry the disease, which kills 3,000 North Americans yearly. The diarrhea-inducing bug is far more deadly than salmonella or BSE, but has slipped beneath many people’s radar screens.

“I guess maybe a lot of the media don’t know how to spell it,” Babiuk joked.

Chris Clark, assistant professor of large animal clinical sciences at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, has a theory on why BSE has generated so much hype.

British authorities made the mistake of emphatically denying the cattle disease posed a risk to human health when it was first discovered in the United Kingdom. Later they flip-flopped and that spooked people.

“When a risk was demonstrated, it caused a huge public scare in Britain and a huge public scare worldwide,” said Clark.

“There were a number of experts who were postulating nightmare scenarios regarding the number of people who would have eaten contaminated beef during the 1980s in Britain and laying out almost doomsday scenarios at the number of people that could become infected.”

That scare failed to materialize, said Clark, but the hysteria lingers.

Those fears were rekindled with the discovery of BSE in Canada, despite the fact that only one animal out of approximately 10,000 that have been tested came back positive. And despite strict measures that are in place to ensure no Canadians consume tainted beef.

“We’re not really talking here about a human health risk from BSE in Canada today,” Clark summed up.

Babiuk concurs. He doesn’t want to belittle the severity of contracting vCJD, which is an unpleasant way to die, but he said the odds of getting the disease from eating Canadian beef are minuscule.

“I think that the risk is close to nil, so I wouldn’t say that you should go change your eating habits.”

West Nile virus will kill more animals and infect more people in Canada than BSE and its human counterpart, he said.

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