While prion diseases seem to be waning in humans, they could be waxing in sheep.
The BSE epedemic in cows could be repeated in sheep.
Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) may claim only around 200 victims, a new model predicts1. This degenerative brain disease is thought to occur when people are exposed to misfolded prion proteins from meat infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease).
Meanwhile, another study warns that a huge BSE epidemic could be brewing in the UK sheep flocks2.
Sheep to sheep
Because sheep ate the same meat and bone-meal believed to have caused BSE in cattle, some experts fear that they may also have become infected with BSE. In that case, the disease could be in the early stages of a large epidemic, a second study suggests.
Sheep have long been prone to scrapie, another transmissible spongiform encephalopathy not believed to infect humans. Unlike BSE in cattle, scrapie can be transmitted from one sheep to another, raising the possibility that BSE might also spread through sheep flocks.
"Since BSE may be transmissible from sheep to sheep, getting rid of the meat and bone matter might not get rid of BSE in sheep," says Rowland Kao of Oxford University, a member of the team that performed the study. "Thats the thing that really concerns everyone."
Kaos team found that if BSE is transmissible in this way, the number of sheep infected could soar in future years even if it is very low now. "Theres no cause for panic, but not for complacency either," he says.
"If their scenario is correct and BSE is spreading through the sheep population, we need to do something about it," agrees Cousens, commending the models "sensible approach".
No one knows whether sheep have been infected with BSE because the symptoms of BSE resemble those of scrapie, which is unique to sheep. A recent five-year study to determine whether the British sheep flock was infected ended in fiasco last month when it emerged that the study had been performed on cattle brains by mistake.
Science Express advanced online publication http://www.sciencemag.org/sciencexpress/recent.shtml
ERICA KLARREICH | © Nature News Service
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