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What is Mad Cow Disease & How Does It Affect Humans? | Symptoms & Treatment of Mad Cow Disease

What is Mad Cow Disease?

Mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a slowly progressive, degenerative, transmissible, and fatal disease.(1) It affects the central nervous system of adult cattle.

It is researched that the infectious agent causing mad cow disease is an abnormal version of a protein that is found on the cell surface and is called a prion. This protein alters and destroys the nervous system tissue and so the brain and spinal cord.

What is Mad Cow Disease & How Does It Affect Humans?

How Does Mad Cow Disease Affect Humans?

In humans the mad cow disease is called variant Creutzfeldt – Jakob disease (CJD) and is believed to be caused by eating the beef products contaminated with central nervous system tissue such as the brain and spinal cord of cattle infected with mad cow disease. For this reason, the spinal cord material is removed from the high-risk cattle or any animal that show signs of neurological problem. It is known to affect people mostly in their late 20’s(2)

You can also get the infection of Mad cow disease by receiving blood or transplanted tissues from an infected donor.

Unsterilized instruments can be another cause of transmission of Mad cow disease infection.

Other Types of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Affecting Human Are:

  • Sporadic CJD: This can affect humans anytime between 20 -70 years. It has no connection to mad cow’s disease. It occurs when the normal proteins spontaneously mutate to the abnormal prion type. 85 percent of CJD cases are sporadic.(3)
  • Familial CJD: It accounts for 5-15 percent of CJD cases. It occurs when a person inherits a mutated gene associated with prion disease from a parent. Its manifestation varies widely.

Symptoms of Mad Cow Disease or Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in Humans

In the early stage of the Mad cow disease, people show symptoms related to the nervous system such as depression and loss of coordination.
Later in the illness, dementia develops. In the advanced stages of the Mad cow disease, brain abnormalities occur which can be detected with MRI.

Variant Creutzfeldt – Jakob disease is fatal mostly within 13 months as the symptoms begin.

Can You Get Mad Cow Disease By Drinking Milk From An Infected Cow?

Milk and milk products do not pose any risk of transmitting mad cow disease to humans(1)

How is Mad Cow Disease Diagnosed?

A blood test is done to rule out other brain diseases that are similar to mad cow disease or variant Creutzfeldt – Jakob disease in humans.

MRI and CT scan can help rule out the risk of stroke or brain tumor.

A spinal fluid test is performed to see the presence of protein similar to mad cow disease in the spinal fluid. A thin needle is taken to puncture the lining of the spinal cord to obtain spinal fluid.

EEG can be done to examine the brain waves

Mad cow disease is a rare illness and is therefore not diagnosed easily by the doctor.

How Can Mad Cow Disease or Variant Creutzfeldt – Jakob Disease be Prevented?

Most cases of mad cow disease have occurred in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom. In the United stated this disease is extremely rare.

The food and drug administration and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulate the animal feed to keep the cows safe from BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). They also avoid the cow and cow products from high-risk cows. This can help prevent variant Creutzfeldt – Jakob disease from affecting humans.

Treatment of Mad Cow Disease

There is no cure for mad cow disease.

The main focus of treatment is on providing patients and their caregiver’s advice for support.

Living with mad cow disease or variant Creutzfeldt – Jakob disease is learning to adapt to the changes and complications of brain deterioration. Gradually the disease worsens and takes away the patient’s independence. They need the support of other people to take care of them.

Most countries have taken measures to prevent BSE-infected tissue from entering the food supply in the following way:

  • Restricting animal feed
  • Taking strict action on dealing with sick animals
  • Restriction on importing cattle from countries where BSE is common
  • Introducing surveillance and testing methods for tracking cattle health
  • Restriction on parts of the cattle that can be used as food
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:July 9, 2021

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