Assessing the risk of mad cow in sheep

January 10, 2002 -- Although a great deal of uncertainty exists about whether bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, can be transmitted from cattle to sheep, researchers have developed a mathematical model to assess the health risks of humans contracting BSE from sheep. The model also takes into consideration the effects protective measures would have on transmission of BSE from cattle to sheep.

The newly developed model indicates that if BSE infects sheep in Great Britain, the current health risk to humans, although low, is likely to be greater than that of contracting BSE from cattle largely reflecting the more stringent control measures in place that protect against cattle BSE. The researchers said, however, that any risk could be greatly reduced by regulations that limit the age at which sheep are slaughtered and further restrictions on the use of animal products in feed.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute international research scholar Neil M. Ferguson and colleagues at the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London published the model and discussed their interpretation of the initial results in an online article in the January 10, 2002, Nature.

According to Ferguson, sheep have been infected with BSE in the laboratory by feeding them brain material from infected cattle. However, a recently completed attempt to detect the disease in the sheep flock failed due to contamination. Nevertheless, given the possibility that sheep might transmit the disease, he and his colleagues had been commissioned by the British government Food Standards Agency to develop a model to guide research and policy-making.

I should emphasize that we werent asked to evaluate the probability that BSE has gotten into the sheep flock -- although with the current basis of knowledge theres no reason to rule out that possibility,

Contact: Jim Keeley
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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