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F.ood & H.ealth : B.iological A.gents Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

New Mad Cow Disease Found in Texas, Alabama Cases
By Kathy Jones
Jun 12, 2006, 08:48

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12 June, ( - Two cases of mad cow disease discovered in Texas and Alabama have perplexed scientists, who say that they may be caused by a different strain that appears spontaneously. The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the existence of this little understood and rare "atypical" strain, but questions on how these animals were infected in the first place remain unanswered.

"It's most important right now, till the science tells us otherwise, that we treat this as BSE regardless," the Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian, John Clifford, said. Mad cow disease is also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). It has emerged that researchers were unable to detect the telltale spongy lesions caused by prions, which deposit the plaque that kills brain cells.

Additionally, the prions in the two new cases were not distributed in the classic pattern. Laboratory studies on mice showed that both the classic and atypical strains could be spread from one animal to another.

However in this case, scientists say the atypical strain might have infected cattle in an unusual way.

Linda Detwiler, a former Agriculture Department veterinarian who consults for major food companies, said that the spontaneous occurring theory must be cautiously approached, "I think it's kind of early to say that would be the case," Detwiler said. Another theory is that the atypical strain might come from a mutation of mad cow disease or even from a related disease in sheep, she added.

But the government maintains that the incidence of these two new strains does not warrant a change in federal testing or measures that safeguard animals and people from the disease. "We still feel confident in the safeguards that we have," Clifford said. "We have to base our assumptions on what is scientifically known and understood."

The Texas and Alabama cases, which were identified last year and this year respectively, have been drawing international attention. Last month at a meeting in London, experts presented research on the U.S. cases and on similar ones in Europe.

"Atypical" strains have been described in about a dozen cows in several countries. Mad cow disease is not transmitted from cow to cow, but instead spreads through feed, when cows eat the contaminated tissue of other cattle. This happens when crushed cattle remains are added to feed as a protein source, but the practice was banned in the United States in 1997.

Mad cow disease or BSE is a progressive neurological disorder of cattle that many believe is caused by an agent known as prion. It is not properly understood how this prion transmits itself among cattle. The disease is characterized disorientation in the affected animals, clumsiness and aggressive behavior towards humans and other animals. BSE is a fatal disease for which there is no cure.

Eating tainted beef can cause a human form of mad cow disease characterized by psychiatric/behavioral symptoms; painful dyesthesiasis and delayed neurological signs. The median age of death from the disease is 28 years and death usually occurs within a year of contacting the infection.

In the US, two cows have tested positive for mad cow disease, the first found in the state of Washington was imported from Alberta, Canada, and the second one was found in a rancher in Texas, US. How the second cow got the disease remains unknown.

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