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Brain Trust: The Hidden Connection Between Mad Cow Disease and Misdiagnosed Alzheimer’s
Brain Trust summarizes a possible looming public health emergency in the United States. Health and Agriculture authorities in the United States and in Canada like to play down any suggestion that the food chain is unsafe, particularly when it comes to the dreaded mad cow disease that has killed over 150 people in the UK and Europe. Authorities assure us that there is nothing to worry about over here. Mad cow disease is predominantly a European problem, they say.
Brain Trust: The Hidden Connection Between Mad Cow Disease and Misdiagnosed Alzheimer’s
by Colm A. Kelleher PhD
"My book Brain Trust argues that that this is definitely an American problem. Not only do we have evidence that mad cow disease has been in the United States for over 20 years, but we also have an epidemic of deer and elk disease that has spread like wildfire through nearly 20 states. The Europeans have only to deal with mad cow disease. We have both mad cow and deer/elk disease. With eleven million hunters beginning hunting season as we speak, it is a matter of some urgency that they be warned about possible dangers of field dressing deer/elk or eating venison. Cooking mad cow or mad deer meat does not make it safer to eat. You have to carbonize meat at 600C to make it safe. By the time it is safe it is a black lump of charcoal.
Mad cow disease is caused by an infectious protein called a prion. A prion is not a virus and it is not a bacterium. It is simply a different shape of a protein. Normal prions play a helpful role in the cell, but when they change shape, they can become lethal. They then kill brain cells by the billions.
Prion diseases kill humans (CJD), cows (BSE aka mad cow disease), sheep (scrapie), deer/elk (Chronic Wasting Disease: CWD) and an assortment of other animal species including mink, squirrels, cats, ostriches etc. More worryingly, prions can jump species. This lead to questions for hunters like: can prions jump from deer/elk to humans? Or can prions jump from deer/elk to cattle?
In the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of thousands of cows died from mad cow disease. For years, health authorities issued press releases telling the anxious British public that eating beef was perfectly safe. It was routine for officials to go on television to assure the public there was nothing to worry about. And then the unthinkable happened. Beginning in the 1990s, scores of teenagers and young people in their twenties began to die from eating tainted beef.
Can the same thing happen in the United States?
We will not know until it is too late unless the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually begins to test the beef being sold to consumers. Currently, there are 35 million cattle slaughtered in the United States, and under pressure, the USDA has agreed to begin testing about 200,000 animals per year for mad cow disease. The huge majority of cattle that reach our dinner tables are never tested for mad cow disease. In Japan and in Ireland, every cow that is eaten gets tested and in Europe over 30% are tested. In the US, even with “expanded” testing, less than 1% of animals are tested. What’s wrong with that picture?
Consumer groups have long criticized the USDA for looking out for big cattle interests rather than looking out for the consumer. Their obstinate refusal to test more cattle in the US for mad cow disease is simply because the cattle industry has deemed it unnecessary. USDA scientists argue that more testing is “unscientific”, but Professor Stanley Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for his discovery of prions, recently stated that the level of testing for mad cow disease in the USA is grossly inadequate. Should we believe a Nobel Prize winning scientist, or should we believe a USDA spokesperson? And when Creekstone Farms in Arkansas decided to test all the cattle in their plants for mad cow disease, the USDA stepped in and, invoking an obscure 1913 law, prohibited the company from testing their cattle!! It is this surreal situation that led to charges by consumers that the USDA does not have the interests of American consumers in mind.
Prions diseases, whether in humans (CJD) in cows (BSE) or in deer/elk (CWD) are 100% fatal. And prions are almost indestructible. They contaminate surgical instruments, even ones that are sterilized. They remain lethally infectious after two years in a pasture. Most viruses or bacteria die within days. Not prions.
And new evidence shows that prions are passed via blood transfusion. Both blood donors and acceptors have died in the UK and in France. A looming question for the health authorities in the United States is: how safe is the American blood supply?
So what is the connection between the human prion disease (CJD) and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)? Firstly, the astounding recent increase in AD in the United States has not been sufficiently highlighted by the media. In 1979, only 653 people died of AD. In 2002, that number had increased to reach 50,000 deaths. A 9000% increase in deaths for any disease in a mere 25 years should be cause for a national emergency. Instead, old people now are almost expected to die of AD. This was not the case a few generations ago. AD was a rare disease in the 1960s.
AD is quite difficult to diagnose. Mood swings, psychiatric problems, sleep problems, eye problems, memory problems are all loosely associated with dementia. There are some overlaps between symptoms of CJD and AD making them difficult to distinguish during the early stages. CJD kills within a few months of diagnosis, while AD victims take years to die. In both cases, the victims die a horrible death. The gold standard for diagnosing CJD is via autopsy followed by pathology of the brain.
Two shocking studies, one from Yale University and the second from University of Pittsburgh really opened my eyes when I first saw them. When researchers studied the brains of dead Alzheimer’s disease patients, they found that between 5-13% had actually been wrongly diagnosed. These people had really died of CJD. Now, what does this say regarding the supposed rarity of CJD in the USA?
We are routinely told that CJD is so rare, only 1 in a million people get it. But with 4-5 million Alzheimer’s Disease patients putting an enormous strain on the US healthcare system, if even a small percentage of these people actually have CJD, not AD, then CJD is much more common than we have been told. These figures imply thousands of CJD cases in the US that are going undetected because of a lack of autopsies. Recent reports indicate that most pathologists do not want to conduct autopsies on CJD patients for fear of contaminating their facilities with the indestructible prions. And to make matters even worse, CJD is not even a mandatory reportable disease in about half the states in the USA. That means authorities have no real idea of how many CJD cases actually exist.
Recently (October 2004), a suspected cluster of CJD was spotted in Ulster County New York. Several months ago (March 2004), another cluster of CJD was noticed in New Jersey. Clusters are worrying because they may point to an infectious entity. In both New York and New Jersey clusters, the health authorities assured the public that these were “sporadic CJD” and hence there was nothing to worry about. Sporadic CJD has no known cause, the health authorities tell us. Both USDA and CDC tell us that sporadic CJD arises randomly and has nothing to do with eating tainted beef. According to health officials, only variant CJD or vCJD, is caused by eating tainted beef. We are also told that there has never been a case of human mad cow disease in the US.
But is that really true scientifically?
New research from Professor John Collinge in London suggests that some cases of sporadic CJD may also be caused by BSE. This research was conducted in transgenic mice with human prions, so critics have argued maybe the same does not apply to humans. But, if Professor Collinge’s data are indeed true, then it is much more likely that people in the US have died of CJD from eating tainted beef (or venison). We will never know until we (a) dramatically increase the number of autopsies of people dying from “dementia”, AD and CJD and (b) dramatically increase testing for mad cow disease in the US.
If we look at the current low level of testing for mad cow disease in the US and we combine it with the current epidemic of deer/elk disease in this country and with the lack of autopsies to determine how many people in the US are actually dying of CJD, we may be facing a grim reality. When the Europeans, who have just gone through ten years of devastating disease and have lost billions of dollars, look across at the United States, they shake their heads in disbelief.
Surely, we can learn from the mistakes made in Europe?"
Brain Trust was published on October 19, 2004 and is currently in bookstores nationwide. For more information, click on:
Interview - Colm Kelleher - Mad Cow and Misdiagnosed Alzheimer's Disease
Background on BSE;
"Swine flu, bird flu and BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, widely known as mad-cow disease) are the most well-known plagues caused by factory farming and poor animal welfare—there are others. And because illnesses spread quickly between animals reared in tight spaces on cannibalistic diets, it’s only a matter of time before other such viruses mutate into strains that can infect humans working on or living near factory farms—and then spread to the rest of us.
BSE spreads between animals and humans through the consumption of infected meat rather than airborne viruses. The feeding of dead cows to live ones is a major contributor to the rapid spread of the illness. And it is just one part of a growing concern over the contents of animal feed—including growth hormones and antibiotics—passing up the food chain to humans.
BSE causes cows’ brains to waste away, and spreads when they are fed bovine tissues contaminated with BSE. Humans who eat infected beef develop the human variant, CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), which lies dormant for many years before producing symptoms similar to dementia, and eventually death.
A new form called variant CJD (vCJD), discovered in the UK in March 1996, has been disproportionately affecting younger patients (a median age of 29 instead of 65). From October 1996 to November 2002, 129 cases of vCJD were reported in the UK, six in France and one each in Canada, Ireland, Italy and the US.
How we treat our feed animals is not only a moral issue.The antibiotics, steroids and other substances we administer to them; the food—including their diseased brothers—we serve them; and the illnesses they contract, are bound to pass onto humans, if not directly through our stomachs, then by way of the air, land and water we share,.Is it worth sacrificing our own health, the animals’ wellbeing and the environment for the sake of marginally increased business profits? If you think not, buying from local, family-owned, free-range and organic farms is an option you should seriously consider."
Stopping the "Zombie Disease" (aka Mad Cow or Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease)
Almost two years ago the Obama administration banned the slaughter of "downer" cows, cows that exhibited neurological dysfunction. The move was aimed at lowering the chance of infecting consumers with "Mad Cow Disease," more appropriately known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
The disease attacks the brain, destroying a person's ability to think and speak, destroying his memories and personality. In effect, the symptoms are hardly different from dementia or Alzheimer's.
While the ban was a needed move in the right direction, the USDA and other government agencies are not going far enough. "Downer cows" are cows that have hit the very last stages of mad cow disease—cows whose brains are swimming with the particle responsible for this disease: the prion.
A prion is a protein that has the unique ability to take other proteins and turn them into its own shape. Prions are like zombies (or for you Trek fans, the Borg) who take normal human beings and turn them into one of them. Eventually, so many of these proteins accumulate in the brain that it results in brain damage. If your brain cells (neurons) are the pipes that deliver information, the plaques that form from the proteins clumping together are like sewage stopping up the pipe. In this case, the pipe can burst: those protein clumps can destroy entire brain cells.
This disease spreads because our beef industry is insane enough to feed cows the inedible remains of other cows. The parts that humans are loathe to eat—such as the brain and spinal cord—are ground up and fed to cows to save money on feed. Of course, an infected cow's brain and spinal cord are full of prions. These prions go on to infect more cows, creating more of themselves, and so forth. Unfortunately, a cow can still seem somewhat healthy and be infected with a lot of these prions. That's why banning "downer cows" just doesn't go far enough.
Frankly, it's not difficult for ranchers and beef companies to test their beef. It costs only a few more cents per pound. Some companies, in fact, volunteered to test, only to be stopped by the USDA. Of course, a few more cents per pound results in millions to billions of dollars of lost profit, according to big corporations' calculations. However, I'm sure that most consumers would gladly pay a few more cents per pound in order to eat safer beef, if these companies would simply pass on the costs to the consumer. They do it all the time with taxes!
Unfortunately, the beef industry is incredibly politically powerful, even since the 1800s. They've been getting subsidies for a long, long time. Yes, you heard right—your very own tax dollars are supporting our massive beef industry. (I'm sure vegetarians and vegans reading this are already grinding their teeth.) So I'm quite cynical as to how well we can rely on the government for a solution to this.
Mad Cow Disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) works very very slowly in human beings. It can be up to 30 years after initial infection before the disease manifests itself. There's also some evidence that suggests that a lot of these cases are misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's or dementia, which is frightening—we may have an emerging epidemic in 30 years with thousands or even millions of people literally losing their minds
So how many people being misdiagnosed with dementia already have CJD? Are we creating a nation of zombies by feeding rendered cattle to chicken, then feeding chicken feces to the cattle? This creates a cycle where the prions can be returned to the cattle.
The symptoms of CJD are slow onset, usually over several years. People may not be aware that their brain is being eaten by prions until it is too late. Economy does not trump human health. Time to shut down the CAFOS before my extraterrestrial alligator friends lasso an asteroid and drop it on the CAFO. They tell me this is the only temperature hot enough to destroy the prion.
Once you get zombified by mad cow (BSE) prions and get CJD, there is no known cure;