The human form of BSE (mad cow disease) is called CJD. A 74-year-old man who died of CJD was the oldest person do perish of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Scientists had believed that it was a disease of young people. But this death in a different age group has shown that more people may be at risk than previously thought. Most of the 85 victims of the disease, for which there is no cure, were under 30. The youngest was 12. Up until now, scientists believed that younger people were more likely to get vCJD from eating infected beef because they ate more junk food, such as hamburgers, which use poorer quality meat. The BSE agent is known to be present in offal rather than muscle meat, such as steaks.

Another theory is that young people have  more active immune systems which could have made them more susceptible to the infection.

It is very difficult to calculate the number of people who are likely to get vCJD. No one is really sure how long the incubation period for the disease is. Some scientists believe that it could be as long as 60 years.

Other scientists have even more alarming predictions: They estimate that on average people in the UK may have eaten 50 meals of infected beef.

At the moment the number of cases of vCJD are doubling every year.

The BSE advisory committee disagrees with the more disturbing forecasts, which means that they do not think that an epidemic is likely to occur. Millions of Britons were probably exposed to BSE before strict health controls were introduced, but only a tiny percentage of them have contracted vCJD. Scientists say that we will know a lot more after the year 2001. By then if the incubation period is short, one should start to see a downturn in the cases.

Meanwhile there are concerns about the safety of blood donated in Britain. Seven of the 85 victims of vCJD had given blood before the symptoms of the disease appeared.

Some countries already ban people from donating blood if they were in the UK for more than six months between 1980 and 1996, the years when infection with the BSE agent was most likely.

BSE, the abbreviation for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a nervous disease of cattle. It takes its name from the way the infection destroys the brain, making it full of holes like a sponge. It is believed that cattle became infected after eating feed containing the remains of sheep with scrapie. BSE is probably spread by a prion protein that is extremely resistant to heat and other forms of sterilisation. The first case of BSE on a British farm was identified in 1985. In 1993, at the height of the epidemic in Britain, there were nearly 1000 new cases of BSE a week. There have been about 177.000 cases of BSE since the start of the outbreak. Strict controls were introduced to fight the disease and stop infected meat getting into the shops. Since 1996, all cows over 30 months, whether they have BSE symptoms or not, have been slaughtered and their meat destroyed. Government officials say British beef is safe, safer than meat from other countries where controls are less strict. Nevertheless, despite all the controls, there were still 1.000 new cases of cattle with BSE last year.

CJD is not a new disease. But it is normally very rare, and until the recent outbreak, it was a disease of older people. CJD, the disease that is linked to BSE in cattle, appears to affect young people. There is no treatment for CJD.

The first thing Sarah Roberts felt was a pain in her legs. It was February and the doctor in the village of Armthorpe diagnosed stress brought on by her exams. In March, when the pain got worse, S.R took herself to casualty, where doctors gave her an x-ray and told her that if she did not "buck her ideas up" she would be referred for psychiatric treatment. By June she could not walk. Her parents brought her bed downstairs and left their jobs. In July a neurologist diagnosed Sarah with vCJD. Towards the end her memory was reduced to a span of two seconds. She lost her ability to speak. By September the 28-year-old woman was dead. Sarah never knew what she had. Sarah´s parents blame the government for its secrecy, prevarication and failure to direct funds toward BSE research. They want to have names, but there are no names. There is no one person to point at. The system was at fault, and Sarah´s parents are left pointing at the system, hoping it will change.

Although the disease appears to cluster in the little town the villagers continue to buy beef. Why? Because they say if they got the disease they got it years ago and there is nothing to be done. The focus of debate is on the two main beef outlets: The butcher´s and Luciano´s pizza, pasta and burger joint. All the three victims were young people, they also could have gone to London and got it. Others think that they are at the wrong side of 40 to worry.

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