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Mad Cow Disease in California

What Is Mad Cow Disease?

In April 2012, the first case of mad cow disease was reported in the U.S. in six years, occurring in a dairy cow in California. A dairy cow in Alberta, Canada, was identified as being infected in August 2011.

Mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, is a fatal disease that causes degeneration of the brain tissue in infected cows. The condition, when transmitted to humans, can cause variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD, a very rare and fatal brain disease in humans that has similar symptoms (for example, ataxia, jerky movements, seizures) to those seen in BSE. Humans also develop dementia, memory loss, and personality changes.

The infectious particle in mad cow disease is a very poorly understood particle called a prion. A prion is not a bacterium or a virus; it appears to be a modified form of protein that can be transmitted by eating prion-contaminated tissues. Mad cow disease is thought to have begun as a result of feeding cattle meat-and-bone meal that was made from BSE-infected cattle products from either a spontaneously occurring case of mad cow disease or scrapie-infected sheep products (scrapie is a similar prion disease of sheep).

The infectious prion in cows with mad cow disease is found in the brain, spinal cord, and some parts of the central nervous system. The prion can be transmitted to humans that consume these parts of the cow; alternatively, the infection can also spread through meat that has been in contact with infected tissue or that was processed in contaminated machinery. There is no effective treatment for vCJD or BSE.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/11/2017

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