Bovine spongiform encephalopathy

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The recognition of BSE in British cattle in 1986, its subsequent widespread occurrence in Europe (limited spread to other parts of the world) peaking in the mid-1990s and its association with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD – a fatal human disease), was one of the most momentous health sagas of the 20th Century. Current emphasis on the need for traceability of foodstuffs was precipitated as a consequence of the BSE pandemic.

Because BSE is relatively easily managed the disease is now rare everywhere in the world and will likely soon become historical. However, because BSE is almost certainly caused by an aberrant self-replicating protein that occurs in the cells of normal cattle, it is unlikely that the disease can ever be totally eradicated. For that reason enforcement of control measures necessary to prevent its reoccurrence and spread will need to be maintained in perpetuity.

There are a number of related diseases that affect people and animals ‒ known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), the best known in animals being scrapie of sheep. Only three TSEs affect humans: kuru (historically prevalent among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea who had cannibalistic traditions), CJD and vCJD. vCJD is the only proven zoonosis among the TSEs.

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Education Level: 
Continuing Professional Development (CPD)
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Dr Gavin Thomson

  • BVSc (Pretoria), MSc (Birmingham, UK – immunology), PhD (London – virology)
  • Extraordinary professor, Department of Veterinary Tropical Diseases, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria, South Africa.
  • Director: TAD Scientific c.c.