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New theory espoused on mad cow origin

Emma Ross Associated Press

LONDON – A new theory proposes that mad cow disease may have come from feeding British cattle a meal contaminated with human remains infected with a variation of the disease.

The hypothesis, outlined this week in The Lancet medical journal, suggests the infected cattle feed came from the Indian subcontinent, where bodies sometimes are ceremonially thrown into the Ganges River.

Indian experts pointed out weaknesses in the theory but agreed it should be investigated.

The cause of the original case or cases of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is unknown, but it belongs to a class of illnesses called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs.

Such illnesses exist in several species. Scrapie is a TSE that affects sheep and goats, while chronic wasting disease afflicts elk and deer. A handful of TSEs are found in humans, including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD.

All TSEs are fatal, untreatable and undiagnosable until after death.

The disease was not known to infect cows until 1986, when the first cases were noticed in Britain. About a decade later, a new permutation of CJD, which scientists dubbed variant CJD, started showing up in people there. Experts believe this new variant came from eating beef products infected with mad cow disease.

But where the cows got the disease remains a mystery. The most popular theory is that cattle were fed meal containing sheep remains, passing scrapie from sheep to cows.

However, a pair of British scientists now proposes the origin may be the bones of people infected with classical CJD, which they theorize ended up in cattle feed imported from South Asia.

Britain imported hundreds of thousands of tons of whole bones, crushed bones and carcass parts to be used for fertilizer and animal feed during the 1960s and 1970s. Nearly half of that came from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, said the scientists, led by Alan Colchester, a professor of neuroscience at the University of .

“In India and Pakistan, gathering large bones and carcasses from the land and from rivers has long been an important local trade for peasants,” the scientists wrote. “Collectors encounter considerable quantities of human as well as animal remains as a result of religious customs.”

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