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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 12:55 GMT 13:55 UK
CJD cluster deaths linked to butchery
Traditional butchery practices are the most likely cause of Britain's first variant CJD cluster, say experts.
The Department of Health has pledged to examine the findings of the report into the deaths of five young people in the village of Queniborough from vCJD, unveiled at a public meeting on Wednesday.
The report suggests that similar traditional practices were used by up to 10% of local retail butchers around the country - raising the possibility of further outbreaks of the disease in future.
vCJD (Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease) is the human form of BSE, or mad cow disease. It is thought it can be contracted by eating meat contaminated with BSE, but the link has not been categorically proved.
The inquiry team, from Leicestershire Health Authority, believe the infection that caused the Queniborough outbreak could have been spread from high-risk brain tissue to cuts intended for human consumption via butchers' hands or knives.
They say the critical period occurred between 1980 and 1991, and believe the incubation period for the disease could be up to 16 years.
They also believe only small amounts of contaminated material are enough to put humans at risk.
The inquiry found that although all the victims did not use the same butcher, they all ate beef or beef products.
The experts believe out-dated techniques used by some small abattoirs and butchers probably spread the disease from cows to humans.
He said the people who died purchased meat from butchers where it was common practice for the heads of slaughtered cows to be split open so the brain could be removed.
The brain is protected by a membrane, but if this is split, the brain material has a tendency to ooze out and to stick to things, increasing the risk that BSE-contaminated material will infect joints intended for human consumption.
The risk of transmission was also increased by practices used in smaller abattoirs, where rods were inserted into the animals brains to ensure they did not kick out during the slaughtering process. In addition, slaughtered animals were wiped with cloths, rather than hosed down.
Report co-author Dr Gerry Bryant stressed butchers had done nothing wrong.
She said: "This represented traditional butchering craft, and was quite legitimate practice.
"In all of the 22 local retail butchers we had to interview, we only found four who practised in this way. None of the supermarket chains or freezer food centres we identified practised in this way.
"This practice was stopped very quickly after BSE became recognised."
Dr Bryant called for a national investigation of the team's hypothesis.
She said: "It is unlikely that this is the only means of exposure of humans to the BSE agent.
"But by testing this hypothesis it will help determine how important this is as a possible means of transmission of the disease and may help in predicting the future size of the epidemic."
No other common connection
The experts ruled out any other common connection between the five victims of vCJD.
Neither was there any link between their jobs. The theory that the water supply was contaminated was also ruled out.
Professor Roy Anderson, a member of the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), who advised the Leicestershire Health Authority, said the report had come to "a very plausible explanation".
However, Professor Richard Lacey, of Leeds University, a microbiologist who first suggested the link between BSE and vCJD, said nobody knew for certain how vCJD was transmitted.
He said the Leicestershire report was "pure speculation".
Clive Evers, from the CJD Support Network, said: "This inquiry is important because it has explained in some detail what went on at that time and families want explanations and want to know why this happened to their particular relative at that time."
The cluster was first reported in 1998 after three people died within 12 weeks.
Glen Day, 35, from Queniborough and Pamela Beyless, 24, from nearby Glenfield died in October.
Stacey Robinson, 19, formerly of Queniborough, had died two months earlier in August.
A 19-year-old man then died in May and at the same time health officials said it was "highly probable" that a 24-year-old man in the county had also contracted the disease.
A fifth person, a male farm worker, died in September.
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