More than 40 cases of a mysterious brain illness that resembles mad cow disease have been reported in Canada.
According to CBC, the illness has similarities to the rare and fatal brain disorder known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) and its variants, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which is also known as mad cow disease.
But although it is similar to CJD, officials say it is not the same disease.
Health officials in New Brunswick, Canada, are now scrambling to understand how 43 people contracted the illness and what the unknown neurological disease is.
Five people have died, officials confirmed.
More than 40 cases of a mysterious brain illness (brain scan file image) that resembles ‘mad cow disease’ have been reported in Canada
As the investigation and research continues to figure out what the disease is, neurologist Dr Neil Cashman says he believes it could be an environmental toxin
According to CBC, the first diagnosed case in the area occurred in 2015, but the cases have continued to rise over the years. In 2020, there were 24 reported cases and so far in 2021, there have been six cases.
Bertrand Mayor Yvon Godin told the news site that residents are ‘very, very worried’ about the disease.
‘Residents are anxious, they’re asking ‘Is it moose meat? Is it deer? Is it contagious?’ We need to know, as fast as possible, what is causing this disease,’ Godin said.
As the investigation and research continues to figure out what the disease is, neurologist Dr Neil Cashman has offered some insight into what it’s not.
He says there’s no evidence that points to it being a prion disease like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
‘There is no evidence, not a hint — even in the three autopsies that have been performed — of a human prion disease. That came as a surprise to me, frankly,’ he told the CBC.
WHAT IS MAD COW DISEASE?
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a fatal neurological disease in cattle caused by an abnormal protein that destroys the brain and spinal cord.
The disease was first identified in Great Britain in 1986, although research suggests the first infections may have spontaneously occurred in the 1970s.
It is believed to be spread by feeding calves meat and bone meal contaminated with BSE.
Nicknamed mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy was first diagnosed in the 1980s
Humans can contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (vCJD) if beef products contaminated with central nervous system tissue from cattle infected with mad cow disease are eaten.
There is no treatment and 177 people have been killed by the variant.
There were 36,000 diagnosed cases of mad cow disease in Great Britain in 1992, leading to British beef exports being banned and dozens of people dying.
In August 1996, a British coroner ruled that Peter Hall, a 20-year old vegetarian who died of vCJD, contracted the disease from eating beef burgers as a child.
The verdict was the first to legally link a human death to mad cow disease.
‘So in essence, this is something new, and we need to get on the stick and figure out what this is.’
As Cashman and a team of experts continue to search for more answers, he says due to the cases being limited to certain regions, the illness ‘fits with the notion of an environmental toxin’.
‘A lot of scientific acumen will be required to pin it down to a cause,’ he said, adding that it’s uncertain when they will have a more concrete answer for the public.
‘It’s possible ongoing investigations will give us the cause in a week, or it’s possible it will give us the cause in a year,’ he said.
Cashman encouraged locals to continue about their usual day-to-day routines and ‘stay calm’.
The outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) – a degenerative brain disease – in cattle in the mid-1990s decimated Britain’s livestock farming and led to the slaughter of 4.4 million animals.
The human strain, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, killed more than 170 people in the UK.
Nicknamed mad cow disease, BSE was first diagnosed in the 1980s but the worldwide ban on British beef was imposed by the European Union in 1996 following the British outbreak.
The EU lifted the ban in 2006, but many countries continued to refuse to allow imports of British beef. They included Canada, which finally lifted its embargo in 2015.
British farmers recently secured five-year deals with China and Japan valued at $317million and $175million respectively.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading rapidly across the US, American officials lifted the British beef ban.
The move followed a series of inspections by US officials at British farms and abattoirs in the summer of 2019.
British farmers believe they can exploit a growing demand in America for high-end cuts of grass-fed beef driven by consumers concerned about the growth hormones pumped into US cattle.