20 January 2000
CJD epidemic unlikely, says report

THOUSANDS may die from the human form of BSE but the disease is unlikely to become an epidemic, claims a new report.

Up to 14,000 could die from new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD) over the next few years, claim scientists from the Wellcome Trust Centre.

The figure is much lower than some predictions which have forecast that as many as 6 million people could be victims of the disease.

magazine reports that the team constructed a statistical model using recent figures to predict what could happen in the long term.

If 15 or fewer people die each year in 1999 and 2000 the team predicts any epidemic will peak at a total of 14,000 cases or fewer, claims the report.

Professor Peter Smith, acting chairman of the governments advisory committee on BSE, said he was not surprised by the findings.

“The longer the epidemic goes on with the number of cases being relatively small then the more likely it is the overall epidemic size will be relatively small,” he told Farming Today on Radio 4.

“Weve now gone a number of years without the exponential increase it was feared there might be.”

But Prof Smith cautioned that the study assumed that there was no secondary transmission of BSE, through for example, blood transfusions.

This had not yet been confirmed, he said.

The model also assumes that only a certain proportion of the population, who display a particular variant of a gene for protein called PrP, are susceptible to nvCJD.

All the known nvCJD victims had two copies of the variant, a trait shared by about 40% of the British population.

However, it could be that other people are also susceptible to the disease but will take longer to display symptoms.

To date, nine deaths from nvCJD have been confirmed for 1999, according to the national CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh.

While it is too early to put a final figure on the years toll this current figure is less than that reported for 1998 at this stage last year.

In January 1999, 12 deaths had been confirmed for 1998, a figure that eventually rose to 17.

A Department of Health spokesman told BBC Online “We are encouraged by the fact that CJD is not yet an epidemic.

“But we do not know how many people it is going to effect, and we would be cautious about predicting a final figure.”

Last month Lord Justice Phillips, chairman of the BSE Inquiry warned that current cases of nvCJD may be “the tip of an iceberg of infection”.

There have been 48 definite and probable cases of nvCJD in the UK since 1985, according to the latest government statistics.