Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is a prion disease of cattle. Since 1986, when BSE was recognized, over 180,000 cattle in the UK have developed the disease, and approximately one to three million are likely to have been infected with the BSE agent, most of which were slaughtered for human consumption before developing signs of the disease. The origin of the first case of BSE is unknown, but the epidemic was caused by the recycling of processed waste parts of cattle, some of which were infected with the BSE agent and given to other cattle in feed. Control measures have resulted in the consistent decline of the epidemic in the UK since 1992. Infected cattle and feed exported from the UK have resulted in smaller epidemics in other European countries, where control measures were applied later.
Compelling evidence indicates that BSE can be transmitted to humans through the consumption of prion contaminated meat. BSE-infected individuals eventually develop vCJD with an incubation time believed to be on average 10 years. As of November 2004, three cases of BSE have been reported in North America. One had been imported to Canada from the UK, one was grown in Canada, and one discovered in the USA but of Canadian origin. There has been only one case of vCJD reported in the USA, but the patient most likely acquired the disease in the United Kingdom. If current control measures intended to protect public and animal health are well enforced, the cattle epidemic should be largely under control and any remaining risk to humans through beef consumption should be very small. (For more details see Smith et al. British Medical Bulletin, 66: 185. 2003.)
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a prion disease of elk and deer, both free range and in captivity. CWD is endemic in areas of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska, but new foci of this disease have been detected in Nebraska, South Dakota, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Mississippi Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Montana, and Canada. Since there are an estimated 22 million elk and deer in the USA and a large number of hunters who consume elk and deer meat, there is the possibility that CWD can be transmitted from elk and deer to humans. As of November 2004, the NPDPSC has examined 26 hunters with a suspected prion disease. However, all of them appeared to have either typical sporadic or familial forms of the disease. The NPDPSC coordinates with the Centers for Disease Control and state health departments to monitor cases from CWD-endemic areas. Furthermore, it is doing experimental research on CWD transmissibility using animal models. (For details see Sigurdson et al. British Medical Bulletin. 66: 199. 2003 and Belay et al. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 10(6): 977. 2004.)