Let‘s set mad cow facts straight
By Noh Hyun-gi
In memory of the 2008 candlelit protests that were triggered by concerns about the safety of U.S. beef, over 3,000 gathered in Cheonggye Square, central Seoul on Wednesday night.
Holding candles in paper cups, just like four years ago, they demanded the administration keep its promise to ban American beef imports following an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. On April 24, a dairy cow in California was found with the first BSE case in nearly five years.
The mood was not as boisterous as four years ago but both media and public appeared to be wary, not so much because of health hazards but the political explosiveness of the issue. It is one benefit of experience, having undergone rumors and misinformation about mad cow disease that almost toppled the government last time around.
Still, it is important to see how BSE should be medically perceived in order to rid consumers of misunderstanding once and for all.
The chance of people falling sick from eating BSE-contaminated beef is extremely low. Also, the medical categorization of human BSE infection calls for clarification.
As of March 2011, 224 patients worldwide were diagnosed with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human form of mad cow disease, since the first case in 1996, according to the World Health Organization. 175 cases were found in the United Kingdom, the origin of BSE epizootic in 1986.
The fatal illness affects the brain and the nervous system and is one of four forms of CJD. All four types are characterized by progressive brain dysfunction similar to dementia, unsteadiness, involuntary moment and difficulty in walking. Scientists believe CJD is caused by prion, a protein which replicates itself in the host’s brain causing neurological damage.
However, vCJD is the only illness connected with exposure to BSE-contaminated meat. In contrast with the other forms- sporadic CJD (sCJD), familial CJD (fCJD), and iatrogenic CJD (iCJD)- vCJD affects younger patients (median age at death of 28, as opposed to 68) and has a longer duration of illness (median of 14 months as opposed to 4.5 months), according to WHO.
Unfortunately, the tricky categorization leaves room for statistical manipulation. Hours before the protest, a group of progressive dailies hosted a panel discussion to highlight the failure of governments and local journalists at the Seoul Press Center. Despite the well-reasoned arguments against some of the administration’s shortcomings, no one cited correct epidemiological facts to prove BSE’s implication on human health.
Woo Seoc-kyun, chief director of policy board at the Korean Foundation of Medical Groups for Health Rights said “I believe there were perhaps two cases of iCJD this year and 30 cases of sCJD,” without defining any of the terminology when an audience member asked him about human mad cow disease.
Neither iCJD nor sCJD are related to BSE-contaminated product. The former can occur if someone comes in direct contact with the toxic cells through medical oversight. The latter may develop with age and represents about 85 percent of all CJD cases.
“Theses have nothing to do with eating beef,” said Huh Kyoon, professor of neurology at Ajou University Medical Center. “In fact, I diagnosed a woman just last week with what appears to be sCJD.“ said Huh. The patient in her 60s came in after months of psychotic symptoms and jerky movements. Huh comes across cases of naturally occurring CJD about once a year. The fourth type, fCJD, is related to genetic mutations and make up less than 15 percent of all cases.
“In a pure statistical sense, vCJD is not a threat to public health; some 200 people got the illness from eating beef over five years.” Huh said.
“In my view, the public’s fear stems from the fact that there is no cure — it is a death sentence. Also, many remember the deathly outbreak in Britain. But that was decades ago and Britain has implemented multiple measures to control the illness.”
In the United States, a total of three cases of human mad cow disease were documented. Patient history suggests that two of them were exposed to BSE in the U.K. and one in Saudi Arabia.
Korea’s Center of Disease Control and Prevention handles all diagnostic tests for CJD. Hospitals are required to refer anyone suspected of having CJD so the federal agency can conduct 14-3-3 protein tests to identify the biomarker that can confirm the neurologic disease. Consequently, the government documents all CJD diagnoses and requests the responsible physicians to monitor them.
The current government resumed U.S. beef imports in 2008 after the Roh Moo-hyun administration banned them in 2003 following a BSE case found in a Washington State farm.
This triggered nationwide candlelight protests and led the Lee government to announce on May 8, 2008 that it will immediately cease imports, investigate imported beef, dispatch a team of examiners to the United States, and pull beef from school and army cafeterias if another case surfaces.
However, the government merely increased the inspection of U.S. beef imports from 20 percent to 50 percent in April in reponse to the California cow.
The bovine disorder, which shows similar accumulation of prions as in the human form, is thought to have originated from feeding cattle meat and bones of infected cows or sheep. The British industry’s practice of feeding rendered meal to calves led to the outbreak that peaked in 1993; that year, nearly 1,000 new cases were reported per week. The figure has dropped steadily to 11 in 2010.
Korea imported 107,203 tons of U.S. beef in 2011 and 90,569 tons in 2010, according to the Korea Meat Trade Association.