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Professor Richard Lacey
"They have no idea"
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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 17:08 GMT
CJD report: Reaction
Professor Lacey says nobody knows how disease spreads from cows to humans
The microbiologist who first raised the possibility of a link between BSE in cows and vCJD in humans says scientists have no idea what caused the cluster of cases in Leicestershire.

However, another leading expert has warned that if the findings of the official report into the deaths of five people from variant CJD in the village of Queniborough are accurate it could be that many more people will die from vCJD.

The report, released on Wednesday, has put part of the blame on the way butchers in the area prepared meat in the 1980s.

But Professor Richard Lacey, who is based at Leeds University, told the BBC Today programme that it was not possible to draw firm conclusions about the spread of the deadly disease.

He said the report, from Leicester Health Authority, was simply searching for a scapegoat.

'No idea'

They have no idea, it is just guess work

Professor Richard Lacey, Leeds University
"They have no idea, it is just guess work, speculation. The aim is to reassure, rather than to get at the truth.

"This has been the whole basis of CJD over 15 years - not to get at the truth, but to reassure in the short term."

Professor Lacey said nobody knew when humans were first exposed to infection, if there was a single dose or many sources.

Neither did scientists have any detailed knowledge about how the disease spreads from cows to people.

Laboratory tests on mice had shown that it was difficult to transmit the infection by taking it in through the mouth.

"It is not clear exactly how it spreads, it could be more than one way."

Incubation period

Professor Roy Anderson, a member of the government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), who advised the Leicestershire Health Authority, said the finding that the incubation period of vCJD was 10-16 years was "somewhat disappointing".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The scale of the epidemic will be smaller if the incubation period is shorter.

"It is important not to over-interpret this cluster. It is significant, but it is only five cases."

However, Professor Anderson said the health authority report had come to "a very plausible explanation".

He said it was too early to tell how widespread the practice was of butchers removing brains from whole carcasses.

'Important study'

Professor Hugh Pennington, an expert in BSE from Aberdeen University, agreed that the study had to be speculative because it was looking at events which took place many years ago.

Professor Hugh Pennington
Professor Hugh Pennington said the study left many questions unanswered
But he said: "It is an important study. It is only by studying clusters that we can look for factors in common that all the unfortunate victims shared."

Professor Pennington said some of the butchery practices highlighted in Queniborough were widespread at the time across the country.

He said: "It does raise the question of why Queniborough and why young people?

"It still leaves many questions unanswered."

Government response

Dr Pat Troop, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, said the report had not proven any cause, but had provided significant evidence of a possible route of transmission.

We do work on the basis that we could have a very large epidemic

Dr Pat Troop, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England

She said the data would be analysed by the government's expert advisory committee on CJD.

She told the BBC: "We will ask them a number of questions. Does this help in our understanding of the cause of the disease? What will it tell us about the course of the epidemic? How many patients might we expect in the future? And also whether or not any similar work might be carried out elsewhere in the country?"

Dr Troop said the Food Standards Agency had advised that the practice of removing brains from slaughtered cows - highlighted in the Queniborough report - was not particularly common.

But she said: "We do work on the basis that we could have a very large epidemic."

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See also:

21 Mar 01 | Health
Villagers await CJD answers
21 Mar 01 | Health
CJD report 'won't help me'
14 Feb 01 | Health
CJD compensation announced
15 Nov 00 | Health
CJD risk 'higher than thought'
20 Oct 00 | Health
CJD - will there be an epidemic?
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