Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)

What is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy?

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is a cattle disease, caused by an infection, that has an effect on the neurological system of the animal. This disorder is more commonly referred to as ‘mad cow disease’.

When humans consume meat from an infected animal, they can acquire a condition called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or vCJD. Individuals who contract this disease will suffer brain damage, which rapidly causes the loss of mental capabilities and physical movement. After the first symptoms of the disease appear, the prognosis for the individual is approximately 8 months.

In order to contract the disease, humans need to assimilate contaminated nervous system tissue such as brain or spinal cord.

What are the Symptoms of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy?

Individuals who contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease by eating meat from a cow that has Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy can have a variety of mental and physical symptoms.

Signs of the disease that affect the mind include fast acting dementia, hallucinations, nervousness, changes in personality and bouts of confusion. Common physical signs of vCJD include stiff muscles, seizures, twitching and jerking of the body,  and issues with coordination that causes individuals to lose their balance when walking. It is also common for individuals to have trouble sleeping and difficulties when talking. Some people will also experience blurry vision when they have this disease.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Causes

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is the long name for a disease most of us know as mad cow disease. The reason for the disease in cattle is due to an abnormal prion; the abnormal prion is passed on by eating the infected parts of a cow with the disease. The parts that aren’t for human consumption are ground into a powder and used as filler for many types of feed. Prions are highly resistant to heat, UV light and other measures that are used to sanitize the food. For this reason and the long incubation period, it’s tough to make sure there aren’t any infected cows in a batch. The incubation period of this disease is between thirty months and eight years.

How is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Treated?

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a fatal condition that is not curable. Taking certain medications, such as epilepsy drugs, antibiotics and antidepressants, are often prescribed to delay the progression of the disease, but they have not proven to be very effective.

Physicians may prescribe medications for those who have the disease to help manage their aggressive behaviors and agitation. Treatment for individuals with vCJD will require caregivers to keep the patient safe and to take care of their physical needs. As the disease progresses, caregivers will be responsible for the complete care of the individual.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Prevention

The best prevention is to avoid eating and feeding infected cows. The United States and Canada have enacted bans on animals that could have BSE. In addition to the prohibition on live animals, there is also a ban on any feed that contains ruminant tissue in it. There are also processes in place to prevent animal tissue in the entire animal feed system to avoid the spread of this disease. In addition to the bans for imported cattle and meat, there are inspections conducted to ensure that the disease isn’t being spread. The estimated amount of BSE in the US is one cow in a million adult cattle. To further ensure the disease is contained, meat from areas of high risk aren’t allowed to enter into the human food supply. Air injection stunning is also banned, to make sure the possibility of the abnormal prion spreading to the rest of the carcass. If cattle suspected of BSE are present, they’re not allowed to be tagged as inspected and passed until the results for BSE come back.

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Last Reviewed:
September 13, 2016
Last Updated:
November 20, 2017
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