Mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a deadly disease which affects the central nervous system of adult cattle. The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord. If a human eats any beef containing brain or spinal cord tissue from an infected cow, they may develop the human form of the disease called variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD). There is no evidence that consuming muscle meat (ground beef, steaks, or roasts), milk, or milk products can cause vCJD. Three cases prior to 2011 in the United Kingdom were due to a blood transfusion.
The symptoms of vCJD may include depression, apathy, anxiety, painful sensory symptoms, loss of coordination, and dementia. vCJD has been fatal in all human cases. Diagnosis is made by examining the symptoms and the progression of the condition. MRI scans, biopsy of the tonsils and an electroencephalogram (special recording of brain waves or EEG) may also be used. vCJD can only be confirmed after death.
There have been just over 200 cases of vCJD worldwide, most in the United Kingdom before 2008. Since 2008, the United Kingdom has had less than 2 new cases per year. In order to control the spread of vCJD, many countries have regulations on their food supplies. For example, the United States removes high-risk parts of cows (such as the brain and spinal cord) from all beef products. China placed bans so that no cows from countries with known cases of the disease could enter.
The exact cause of vCJD is unknown, but researchers believe it may be caused by an improperly folded infectious protein called a prion. At present there is no cure for vCJD though research is ongoing. Medication may be used to slow the disease and help control certain symptoms. If you or a family member has been diagnosed with vCJD, talk to your doctor and specialists about the most current treatment options.