The Maneka Gandhi column: We've pretended that Mad Cow Disease does not exist in India, it's time we acknowledge its fatality

By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Someone we know very well in Dehradun, a rich Jain businessman, has been diagnosed with Mad Cow Disease. He has lost most of his weight, ability to speak, eat, remember, most of his motor functions. He is being fed through a tube. He has gone from being a normal person to a vegetable in seven months.

The symptoms started with him being tired and depressed, short memory lapses. He couldn’t sleep and his muscles stopped obeying him. He went to Mumbai and they diagnosed him with sleep apnea. They sent his tests to doctors abroad and the diagnosis was unhesitating: Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), known as vCJD (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) in humans.

Commonly called Mad Cow disease, it is contracted through eating meat. But the gentleman is a vegetarian, said his wife. It turned out that he was eating meat while on business trips within India. He will be dead by next month.

For years, we have pretended that Mad Cow does not exist in India. People who have a brain deterioration, loss of memory and motor functions are diagnosed as senile or victims of Alzheimer’s disease. He is the second Indian that I know to have contracted BSE. The first one is a gentleman whose picture is on the net and who is lying in hospital with a tube through his nose. He too contracted it last year

The Maneka Gandhi column: Weve pretended that Mad Cow Disease does not exist in India, its time we acknowledge its fatality

We do not recognize any of the diseases that we are getting from infected animals. Reuters

We do not recognize any of the diseases that we are getting from infected animals: tuberculosis, leukaemia, Mad Cow. I have received a letter from a scientist/veterinarian who says that he has been trying to get government research agencies to investigate leukaemia in cattle for so many years with no luck. We barely even recognize the diseases we get from eating healthy animal meat: heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, cholesterol to name a few.

But Mad Cow is very very serious. It is a fatal disease like rabies. It causes a spongy degeneration of the brain and spinal cord. The disease occurs in cattle. BSE has a long incubation period, about 2.5 to 8 years, usually affecting adult animals at four to five years. More than 180,000 cattle were infected in the U.K.
The disease is easily transmitted to humans who eat infected meat. By this year it has killed several hundred people all over the world and millions of animals.

In India we do not test for it or even acknowledge it. When this man got it in Dehradun a red alert should have been given all over the country and cattle should have been tested at slaughterhouses. He has eaten the meat in India and so will have many other people from the same animals. But no one has acknowledged his disease or informed the Food Safety Authorities.

Contrast this with the worldwide alert that has gone out in February 2015 when Canada officials confirmed a case of BSE in a beef cow in Alberta. It is the first reported Canadian case since 2011. Canadian authorities are tracing all animals of risk so they can be destroyed.

Or the alert from England last week which says that the government there is worried that blood banks may still be affected with Mad Cow Disease. Public health officials worry that the misshapen proteins, or prions causing vCJD can be transmitted through blood from asymptomatic donors. At least three vCJD cases out of 229 worldwide since 1980 are believed to have been contracted via blood transfusion rather than by eating contaminated meat. A study published last year found that 1 in 2,000 people in the U.K. might be carrying these prions.

BSE is caused by cattle, sheep or any other herbivorous animal being fed meat or bone meal. Protein cells become twisted into prions. Prions are NOT DESTROYED by fire, freezing, disinfectants, sterilization procedures or radiation. Contaminated beef foodstuffs prepared "well done" remain infectious.

The origin of the disease itself remains unknown though the British insist that it came from India and entered the food chain in the 1980s. Alan and Nancy Colchester, professors of neurology at the University of Kent, writing in the 3 September 2005 issue of the medical journal The Lancet, proposed a theory that the most likely initial origin of BSE in the United Kingdom was the importation from the Indian Subcontinent of bone meal which contained CJD-infected human remains.

The government of India called the research "misleading, highly mischievous; a figment of imagination; absurd," further adding that India and had not had a single case of either BSE or vCJD (I am sure this Dehradun case will escape our government’s eye deliberately)

Although the BSE epidemic was eventually brought under control by culling all suspect cattle populations, people are still being diagnosed with vCJD each year. This is attributed to the long incubation period for prion diseases. As a result, the full extent of the human vCJD outbreak is still not known.
Look at the condition of the cattle that go for slaughter. 75% are downer animals: animals with disease, injuries, pregnant, unfit to eat, gangrenous.

Their conditions are exacerbated by the way they are taken in overloaded trucks. When they arrive at the slaughterhouse, most cannot even walk out. They are dragged out of the trucks. Many are already dead. The vets are supposed to reject downed animals according to the law. But there are no vets in slaughterhouses. They sit at home and are paid vast sums by the butchers to sign meaningless pieces of paper stating that the animal was well and the meat is fine.

There are no labs in slaughterhouses and no laboratory technicians to check whether the animal had any communicable disease. The blood and the bones are taken to filthy factories nearby and mixed and ground into bone meal which is fed to other animals, many of whom are vegetarian.

These are called High Protein Pellets. This process of grinding up diseased, dead animals for feed or fertilizer is called "rendering”. India has thousands of rendering factories.

How can our government say that India is free of BSE when we have never tested a single cow for it? We denied having foot and mouth disease when, last year, thousands of cattle had it. We sent exports of meat contaminated with foot and mouth – knowing that it is also a zoonotic disease. We know that our cattle have brucellosis which in humans translates into tuberculosis. Do we check our slaughtered animals for that? No, we deny it. Do we check our cows for Bovine Leukemia, a disease that millions of cattle have been acknowledged to have in every country and which translates into human cancer. We don’t even allow our vets to even raise the issue.

In the United Kingdom, anyone with vCJD symptoms must be reported to the Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Surveillance Unit. In the United States suspicious cases have to be sent to the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center.

The American Red Cross has banned people who have spent a cumulative time of 3 months or more in the UK between 1980 and 1996 from donating blood.

Cows affected by BSE show progressively deteriorating behavioural and neurological signs. An increase in aggression, reacting excessively to noise or touch, losing the ability to coordinate muscles, a drop in milk production, refusal to eat and lethargy.

Hundreds of our cows, buffaloes, sheep and goats have these symptoms. But our vets are not trained to recognize these symptoms as BSE. There are no proper veterinary hospitals in rural India (two rooms without light and water, in Pilibhit), no labs to test the brain even for rabies. No wonder we say our cattle are healthy.

India is the largest exporter of bovine meat. Any admission of disease would destroy the industry. So our government and our medical establishment don’t say anything. Has anyone gone to look at the Dehradun man? No. I came across this on the net. Indian neuropathologist Susarla Shankar says, "Officially, only 85 Indian CJD cases have been registered in the last 37 years. If our cattle would have had Mad Cow, there would have been a major epidemic in northern India long ago. “

But there has been a major epidemic of senility and Alzheimers. How many have been checked for misdiagnosis? Is 85 cases not an epidemic? I want to know the real statistics of how many people in India have the disease or have already died of it .

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Updated Date: Feb 08, 2016 18:01:55 IST

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