Expanded Plan to Combat Mad Cow Disease. (EH Update)

Journal of Environmental Health, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Expanded Plan to Combat Mad Cow Disease. (EH Update)


In August 2001, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson unveiled a department-wide action plan for improving scientific understanding of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as "mad cow disease," and related diseases known as "transmissible spongiform encephalopathies" (TSEs). The plan takes a comprehensive approach; it is designed to strengthen surveillance, increase research resources, and expand existing inspection efforts to prevent BSE and TSEs from entering or taking hold in the United States.

"We've already taken numerous precautionary steps at the federal and local levels to prevent BSE from occurring in the U.S. food supply, but we must continue to strengthen our understanding of the disease," said Secretary Thompson. "This plan lays out a course of action to expand our understanding of the underlying science of BSE and its potential for transmission to humans."

BSE, first identified in 1986 in the United Kingdom, is a fatal disease that causes progressive neurological degeneration in cattle. It is one of a family of TSE diseases that cause spongelike gaps to develop in brain tissue. One TSE that affects humans is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), and a form of this disease, variant CJD (vCJD), is probably related to BSE in cattle. Strong scientific evidence suggests the agent that causes BSE in cattle is the agent that causes vCJD in people. So far, cases of vCJD have been reported in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, and they are believed to occur in people who have consumed beef products contaminated with the infective BSE agent. No cases of BSE or vCJD have been reported in the United States.

"The number of people known to suffer this disease remains extremely small, with no cases involving residents of this country. The basic facts about BSE and other TSEs are not well understood, so it's important for us to learn more as quickly as we can. And at the same time, we must continue to carry out effective steps to keep BSE out of the American food supply," Secretary Thompson said.

The effort will be coordinated with other government agencies, the private sector, and the international community. The action plan outlines four areas of responsibility for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)--surveillance, protection, research, and oversight:

* Surveillance--The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will enhance its current program to identify and investigate possible cases of vCJD. Through cooperative agreements with state and local health departments, CDC will enhance and expedite the oversight of illness and deaths from CJD so that any possible vCJD cases will be rapidly detected. …

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