Mad cow disease is a fatal disease that slowly destroys the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) in cattle. It also is known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
People cannot get mad cow disease. But in rare cases they may get a human form of mad cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which is fatal. Over time, vCJD destroys the brain and spinal cord.
Experts are not sure what causes mad cow disease or variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).
The leading theory is that the disease is caused by infectious proteins called prions (say "PREE-ons"). In affected cows, these proteins are found in the brain, spinal cord, and small intestine. There is no proof that prions are found in muscle meat (such as steak) or in milk.
Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) causes the brain to become damaged over time. It is fatal. Symptoms include:
If a person does eat nerve tissue from an infected cow, he or she may not feel sick right away. The time it takes for symptoms to occur after you're exposed to the disease is not known for sure, but experts think it is years.
There is no single test to diagnose variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Doctors may think that a person has vCJD based on where the person has lived and the person's symptoms and past health. Imaging tests, such as an MRI, may be done to check for brain changes caused by vCJD.
Researchers are now trying to develop a blood test that looks for vCJD. But no blood test is available at this time.
A brain biopsy is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of vCJD.
There is no cure for variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Treatment includes managing the symptoms that occur as the disease gets worse.
The following health organizations are tracking and studying mad cow disease and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Their websites contain the most up-to-date information about these diseases.
Current as of:
August 4, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineLeslie Tengelsen PhD, DVM - Zoonotic Disease
Current as of: August 4, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Leslie Tengelsen PhD, DVM - Zoonotic Disease
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2021 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.