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What is Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis?

By Lumara Lee
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Bovine spongiform encephalitis is a transmissible disease that causes degeneration of the nervous system in cattle. Although it has a long incubation period that can last as long as eight years, once the symptoms appear the animal will die within just a few short weeks or months. Since it causes damage to the brain and spinal cord, the symptoms can vary from changes in behavior to loss of coordination. Bovine spongiform encephalitis, also known as mad cow disease, is always fatal. There is no treatment.

A cow with bovine spongiform encephalitis may have trouble standing and walking. It may exhibit both changes in behavior and a gradual decrease in coordination. Although it may have a healthy appetite, the animal may lose weight and its milk production may decrease. It will continue to deteriorate until it either dies or is destroyed. Millions of cows have been destroyed in an attempt to prevent bovine spongiform encephalitis from spreading.

The disease was first discovered in November of 1986 when a new form of neurological disease was recognized in cattle on livestock lots in the United Kingdom. Studies showed that the cattle had been infected after ingesting feed that had been processed using parts from an infected cow. It was later determined that many people ate beef from diseased animals that had been slaughtered before any symptoms of bovine spongiform encephalitis had manifested.

Early in December of 2003, an event took place in the United States that was to have global repercussions. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) assumed that a nonambulatory cow called a “downer” was disabled due to complications from giving birth and not from disease, and determined that its meat was safe. After the downer was slaughtered, its meat was sent off to be rendered into feed. Samples taken from the downer cow subsequently tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalitis, and 53 countries immediately banned the importation of US beef and beef products. Shortly afterward, the USDA banned downer cows from being rendered into animal feed, and also banned many bovine products from entering the human food chain.

Bovine spongiform encephalitis is transmissible to humans who can contract it by eating a meat product from an infected cow. In humans the disease is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Eating the meat from an infected animal isn’t the only cause of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and the symptoms are identical to those of bovine spongiform encephalitis.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis?

Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that affects cattle. It's caused by prions, which are misfolded proteins that lead to brain damage, resulting in erratic behavior, loss of coordination, and eventual death. The disease has a long incubation period, typically taking years before symptoms appear.

How is Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis transmitted?

BSE is primarily transmitted to cattle through feed containing contaminated meat and bone meal from infected animals. The use of such feed has been banned in many countries, significantly reducing the incidence of BSE. Transmission to humans, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), can occur through consumption of infected beef products.

What are the symptoms of BSE in cattle?

Symptoms of BSE in cattle include changes in temperament, such as nervousness or aggression, incoordination and difficulty in standing or walking, reduced milk production, and weight loss despite retaining an appetite. These symptoms typically manifest in adult cattle and progressively worsen over weeks or months.

Can Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis affect humans?

Yes, a variant form of BSE known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) can affect humans. It is a rare and fatal condition characterized by psychiatric symptoms, such as depression and hallucinations, followed by neurological issues including involuntary movements and dementia. According to the CDC, there have been cases of vCJD reported worldwide.

Is there a cure or treatment for BSE?

Currently, there is no cure or specific treatment for BSE or its human equivalent, vCJD. Efforts are focused on prevention through strict controls on animal feed and surveillance of cattle populations. Infected animals are culled to prevent the spread of the disease.

How is the spread of BSE being prevented?

The spread of BSE is being prevented through measures such as bans on feeding cattle with meat-and-bone meal from ruminants, rigorous testing of slaughtered cattle for the disease, and the culling of infected or at-risk animals. These control measures have significantly reduced the incidence of BSE in cattle populations globally.

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Discussion Comments

By powerpost45 — On Feb 26, 2014

The idea that someone could acquire mad cow disease from simply eating a cheese burger is a scary thought. The disease is debilitating and usually fatal. People suffer from depression and loss of coordination and eventually have other intellectual problems. People usually die within 13 months of acquiring the disease. The USDA prohibits brain and spinal tissue from suspected disease cows to enter the food supply to prevent the disease in humans but you always have to wonder if meat producers will be honest or notice the symptoms in their animals.

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