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Mad Cow in God’s Country


Public health officials in Indiana are busy doing what Idaho public health officials did two years ago: claiming a cluster of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) victims is a mere coincidence.

If the four who died of CJD since January in Allen County in northeast Indiana–five if you count a death in Lynnville in 2005–had the sporadic version of CJD which strikes one in a million and has no clear cause then it’s bad luck, a tragedy and Something We Need To Study Further.

But if the Indiana patients had variant CJD (vCJD) caused by something in their environment or lifestyle like the four letter word everyone is avoiding?

Let’s just say this is why “food disparagement laws” were slapped on the books after US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey “disparaged” hamburgers on her TV show in 1998. To protect ranches, packers, big food processors and agribusiness interests from economic collapse if their products are found to sicken and kill.

Ever wonder why the Texas and Alabama ranches that produced mad cows in 2004 and 2006 were allowed to remain anonymous? And keep doing business? The grocery stores and restaurants in California that SERVED meat from the first US mad cow from Washington state in 2003? Thank your state law makers.

Still trying to spin the CJD deaths–“‘Mad-cow’ variant not now a risk; Only 3 vCJD cases in the US were confirmed; all had links to UK beef” says an article in Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette in June; what are they trying to say?–is often accomplished at the price of good science.

Because only an autopsy can determine whether CJD was sporadic or variant and two of the Indiana patients– three of Idaho’s nine–received direct burials with no autopsy after coroners or morticians declined the bodies.

And even after autopsy, questions can remain as in the 2004 case of 49-year-old California CJD patient Patrick Hicks whose doctor was assured by the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center (NPDPSC) in Cleveland that his patient didn’t have variant CJD without conducting the tests specified on its own protocol.

NPDPSC spokespeople said they didn’t have frozen brain tissue to conduct the gold standard Western blot test but they knew their autopsy contractor–1-800-AUTOPSY (sic)–lacked the ability to provide frozen tissue when they ordered the work says the UPI.

And even if postmortem tests can find the accumulation of protease resistant prion proteins (PrPSc) thought to signify vCJD in the brain–converted into the infectious particles from normal prions (PrPC) in a morbid game of tag and without a whiff of DNA say scientists–some CJD experts question whether the diseases are even different.

So public health officials are forced to fall back on begging the question and assuming that which they are trying to prove. The deceased patients were too old to have vCJD, they’re saying, because vCJD doesn’t occur in people that old.

Feel better?

This is the same kind of reached-the-party-to-which-we-are-speaking science behind a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control in 2002 about chronic wasting disease–a kind of mad deer disease–called, “Fatal Degenerative Neurologic Illness in Men Who Participated in Wild Game Feasts.”

In the report, a patient who died of CJD was said to not have the variant kind because the wild game he ate “did not originate from known CWD-endemic areas.” Anyone hear of the word “yet”?

But Ronele Hicks, Patrick Hicks’ widow says he WASN’T too old for vCJD and had not traveled to the UK or undergone surgical risks either.

“If it’s from beef, am I next?” she asks pointing out that she and Patrick ate the same meals for 22 years.

Or, if the CJD was genetically linked as the government has implied, should she worry about her sons?

The families of the Indiana and Idaho patients are voicing similar fears while public health officials prattle on about there being no risk of catching the disease through ordinary person-to-person contact. And how people shouldn’t worry about using the same surgical instruments used on the patients.

What about eating the same foods?

MARTHA ROSENBERG is staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at



Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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