BSE in sheep: First estimates of human death toll

The first attempt to estimate the human health risk from possible BSE infection of the British sheep flock is published today by researchers from Imperial College, London.

They show that while the present risk of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) from eating sheep could be greater than that from cattle, the overall historical risk from sheep is much less than that from cattle.

The research, which is reported in the journal Nature (1), follows the failure of a recent study to determine whether sheep carry the infectious prion thought responsible for BSE.

The study, by a team from the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College, predicts that the future number of deaths from vCJD due to exposure from BSE in cattle alone lies between 50 and 50,000. The upper estimate is lower than previous figures provided by the Imperial team but is substantially greater than estimates from other scientific groups reported in October 2001.

The additional risk from sheep has a limited impact on these figures except in the worst-case scenario of a growing sheep epidemic, in which case the range of possible future numbers of deaths increases to between 110 and 150,000.

Professor Neil Ferguson OBE, leader of the research team, said:

"Our latest analysis shows that the current risk from sheep could be greater than that from cattle, due to the more intensive controls in place to protect human health from exposure to infected cattle, as compared with sheep. However, more optimistically, our analysis shows that the overall historical risk from sheep was much less than that from cattle."

The authors explore potential risk-reduction strategies similar to those in place for cattle, including:

1. Restrictions on the age of sheep slaughtered for consumption

2. Enhanced tissue-based controls to reduce the amount of infectivity entering the food supply

Combining these controls is estimated to reduc

Contact: Tom Miller
Imperial College London

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