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Mad Cow Disease and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob (cont.)

Mad Cow Disease and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Symptoms and Signs

Infected adult cattle may develop signs of the disease slowly. It may take from two to eight years from the time an animal becomes infected until it first shows signs of disease. Symptoms in the animal include a change in attitude and behavior, gradual uncoordinated movements, trouble standing and walking, weight loss despite having an appetite, and decreased milk production. Eventually the animal dies. From the onset of symptoms, the animal deteriorates until it either dies or is destroyed (cattle who cannot stand are called "downers"). This disease process may take from two weeks to six months.

Similar symptoms may develop in humans: muscle spasms, lack of muscle control, worsening problems with memory.

Researchers looked at the first 100 people to develop vCJD in the United Kingdom and found psychiatric symptoms in early stages of the disease. These included depression, withdrawal, anxiety, and trouble sleeping. Within four months of the disease onset, those affected developed poor memory and an unsteady gait.

When Should I Call the Doctor about Mad Cow Disease?

People or their caregivers should seek medical care if a person is experiencing any of the signs and symptoms of BSE or vCJD such as memory problems or muscle control, especially in younger individuals.

Diagnosis of Mad Cow Disease and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

A health-care professional would do initial testing similar to checking for dementia -- looking for progressive deterioration of the patient's ability to think and control movement.

  • Certain lab tests may be performed to rule out other forms and causes of brain dysfunction. Individuals may have a complete blood count and liver function tests checked with a sample of their blood. The doctor may also check blood for evidence of a bacterial or other infection.
  • More detailed lab tests might include blood testing of thyroid, B-12 and folate levels, and for certain types of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and HIV, which may produce similar symptoms.
  • Imaging such as an MRI or PET scan may be helpful.
  • The doctor may perform an EEG to look at brain waves. Sporadic CJD typically is associated with some abnormalities on this test, and most cases of vCJD reveal abnormalities in the EEG, although these may not always be present.
  • A brain biopsy (sample of brain tissue) may be taken. Although certain microscopic changes may be present on a brain biopsy to suggest CJD or vCJD, currently, the diagnosis of vCJD can only be confirmed with certainty following examination of the brain post mortem at the time of autopsy.
  • The doctor may ask about the person's eating patterns if BSE transmission is suspected. Do they routinely eat red meat? Have they traveled to countries where BSE is known to exist in the cattle? Have they eaten meat in those countries? Did they receive a blood transfusion or have surgery overseas?

Treatment of Mad Cow Disease and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Patients may be asked to stop taking any medications that could affect memory or cause confusion. A doctor may refer a person to specialists in neurology and infectious diseases, and the doctor will provide medications to ease symptoms. If patients develop seizures, for example, they may be given drugs to help control them.

But the reality is that all prion diseases cause death. There are no effective treatments available. Progression from symptoms to diagnosis to death may be rapid (from eight months for sporadic CJD to up to 60 months for GSS).

Continuing laboratory testing is looking at a number of medications to prevent development of prion disease in animals. Work continues on experimental vaccines to delay or prevent the effects of prion disease.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/21/2017

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