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Mad Cow Disease and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

British Columbia Specific Information

Mad cow disease, also called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), is a fatal disease that slowly destroys the brain and spinal cord in cattle. People cannot get mad cow disease. However, in rare cases they can get a human form of mad cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which is also fatal.

For more information on Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, see HealthLinkBC File #55a Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) and HealthLinkBC File #55b Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD).

Topic Contents

Condition Basics

What is mad cow disease and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob
disease?

Mad cow disease is a fatal disease that slowly destroys the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) in cattle. It also is known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

People cannot get mad cow disease. But in rare cases they may get a human form of mad cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which is fatal. Over time, vCJD destroys the brain and spinal cord.

What causes them?

Experts are not sure what causes mad cow disease or variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

The leading theory is that the disease is caused by infectious proteins called prions (say "PREE-ons"). In affected cows, these proteins are found in the brain, spinal cord, and small intestine. There is no proof that prions are found in muscle meat (such as steak) or in milk.

What are the symptoms?

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) causes the brain to become damaged over time. It is fatal. Symptoms include:

  • Tingling, burning, or prickling in the face, hands, feet, and legs. But there are much more common illnesses that cause these same symptoms. Having tingling in parts of your body does not mean you have vCJD.
  • Dementia.
  • Psychosis.
  • Problems moving parts of the body. As the disease gets worse, a person is no longer able to walk.
  • Coma.

If a person does eat nerve tissue from an infected cow, he or she may not feel sick right away. The time it takes for symptoms to occur after you're exposed to the disease is not known for sure, but experts think it is years.

How is variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease diagnosed?

There is no single test to diagnose variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Doctors may think that a person has vCJD based on where the person has lived and the person's symptoms and past health. Imaging tests, such as an MRI, may be done to check for brain changes caused by vCJD.

Researchers are now trying to develop a blood test that looks for vCJD. But no blood test is available at this time.

A brain biopsy is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of vCJD.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Treatment includes managing the symptoms that occur as the disease gets worse.

Where can you get more information?

The following health organizations are tracking and studying mad cow disease and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Their websites contain the most up-to-date information about these diseases.

Credits

Current as of:
August 4, 2020

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Leslie Tengelsen PhD, DVM - Zoonotic Disease