'Casual attitude' to vCJD warning

Section of brain A brown mass of protein caused by prions leads to brain tissue becoming spongy and destroying nerve cells

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The government has developed a "casual attitude" to the human form of "mad cow disease", MPs have warned.

The Science and Technology Committee said the low incidence of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) was being "used as justification for inaction".

The committee highlighted concerns around the risk of contamination in blood donation and during surgery.

The Department of Health said the issue was being taken "extremely seriously".

VCJD progressively attacks the brain, but can remain dormant for decades.

Researchers believe one in 2,000 people in the UK is a carrier of vCJD, linked to eating contaminated beef.

One hundred and seventy seven deaths in the UK have been attributed to vCJD since it was identified in 1995.

Review

A report by the committee of MPs said tens of thousands of people could be "silent" carriers of the prions that cause the disease.

It argued blood transfusions were a potential source of transmission and called for more work to test and filter donated blood of prions.

It added that prions could not be removed from surgical equipment using standard methods and added there had been 43 cases between January 2010 and March 2013 in which patients had been exposed to a form of CJD during surgery.

Mad cow Contaminated beef from cows infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy was the source of human vCJD

Most cases would have stemmed from operating on patients who had not been diagnosed.

Andrew Miller, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said: "Variant CJD is a terrible disease, and thankfully cases are now rare.

"There remains significant uncertainty about the magnitude of this risk and the government therefore claims to be taking a precautionary approach.

"But our inquiry has shown that its attitude towards vCJD today is far less precautionary than it was in the past.

"Indeed, recent policy seems to have been driven less by precaution than by economic prudence and a hope that the storm has now passed.

"This optimism is not supported by the available evidence."

'Extremely seriously'

The report wants the government to assess the threat from donated blood and introduce technologies to filter or test for prions in the blood.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "CJD is a devastating disease that we take extremely seriously. That is why we are providing ring-fenced funding of over £5m each year for research and surveillance.

"We are continuing work with independent experts and researchers to make sure any risk to the public is minimised, especially in relation to blood tests and instrument decontamination.

"We will respond to the report fully in due course."

John Hardy, a professor of neuroscience at University College London, said: "Mad cow disease and new variant CJD were a disastrous consequence of poor animal carcass handling procedures in the late 1980s amplified by a lax government response to diseased meat reaching the human food chain in subsequent years.

"We were fortunate that the problem only killed in total about 200 people.

"Clearly, vigilance needs to be maintained to prevent the disease's re-emergence through medical infections and it is appropriate the Commons committee is maintaining scrutiny of this important issue."

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