The lingering and painful deaths of 160 young people from variant CJD since 1995 has been a tragedy for them and their families. It is, however, at the very lowest end of earlier predictions about the size of this epidemic and for perspective compares with 45,000 deaths, many of children and young people, from road accidents over this period.
The psychological damage done by fear of variant CJD is incalculable but the economic costs to Britain amount to many billions of pounds. Almost 200,000 cattle have developed BSE and millions more have been slaughtered and burnt in order to eradicate the disease. Millions of tons of beef from cattle over 30 months old has been “wasted”. How many starving Third World children could have been fed with the grain used to produce the millions of tons of beef incinerated to eradicate BSE and protect us from variant CJD. For ten years, there was a worldwide ban on British beef exports and only now are markets starting slowly to recover.
Removal and destruction of SBO, tests upon slaughtered cattle and an expensive tagging and tracking system for cattle have all added to costs. Fears that white cells in transfused blood might contain prions and other infective agents means that all blood for transfusion has been depleted of white cells since 1999 and no one who has had a blood transfusion since 1980 is permitted to give blood. Dentists have recently been advised not to re-use instruments used for root canal work because of fears of prions surviving cleaning and sterilisation; brain surgeons have similar problems.
The BSE crisis was partly responsible for the setting up of the Food Standards Agency and the replacement of the discredited Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food with the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs. Some have suggested that the BSE crisis may have contributed to the heavy election defeat of John Major’s government.
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