Mad Cow Disease

What is mad cow disease?

Mad cow disease is the common name for a rare and deadly brain disease. The scientific name is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). It is spread by eating beef that has been infected by the cattle’s diseased brain or spinal cord tissue. Both animals and humans can get the disease. When humans get it, it is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

Symptoms of mad cow disease

Both humans and animals can get mad cow disease. In humans, it’s difficult to diagnose until it’s reached the most serious symptoms. It can begin with symptoms of depression and loss of balance. Eventually, dementia symptoms (serious decline in memory, thinking, and behavior) appear. Brain abnormalities can be seen through MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which is like an X-ray. It gives your doctor a picture of the inside of your brain. Abnormalities don’t show up on an MRI until near the end of the disease. The disease progresses quickly and it leads to death about one year after symptoms appear.

What causes mad cow disease?

Eating meat or bone meal from infected cattle causes mad cow disease. The beef is contaminated when it exposed to tissue from the infected cattle’s brain and spinal cord.

How is mad cow disease diagnosed?

Doctors focus on eliminating other diseases and conditions that have similar symptoms. For example, a blood test can rule out other forms of dementia. An MRI or CT (computed tomography) scan can rule out a stroke or brain tumor. Doctors can order a spinal fluid test to see if the protein present in mad cow disease is present in your spinal fluid. Unfortunately, since mad cow disease is so rare, many doctors don’t consider it until a person nears the end of his or her life.

Can mad cow disease be prevented or avoided?

Although mad cow disease is extremely rare, most cases occur in Europe – especially in the United Kingdom. It is even less common in the U.S. If you are traveling outside the U.S., the best way to reduce your risk is to avoid eating beef. People who have been diagnosed with mad cow disease cannot be organ donors. The American Red Cross has certain blood donation restrictions for people who may be at risk for vCJD. The meat processing and medical fields are taking precautions to avoid contaminating equipment with the disease. This requires proper sterilization (cleaning). Mad cow disease cannot be transmitted by kissing or other close, personal contact.

Mad cow disease treatment

Mad cow disease cannot be cured. Doctors focus on providing patients and their caregivers with advice for support.

Living with mad cow disease

Living with mad cow disease means learning to adapt to the changes and complications of dementia. As dementia worsens, it takes away a person’s independence. They are no longer able to care for themselves. Caregivers will be given guidance on the best ways to care for their loved one at this stage.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Does mad cow disease affect milk and milk products?
  • Can diseased meat in restaurants contaminate vegetables and utensils in the same restaurant?
  • Can safe cooking eliminate the disease?
  • Can the disease be passed on through sexual contact?