Explainer: What is mad cow disease, BSE and CJD?

Mad Cow Disease reentered the Australian lexicon on Tuesday after Sydney man Frank Burton was admitted to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.


The 63-year-old was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rare degenerative disease of the brain which cannot be treated.

What is Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD)?

It’s been described by some media outlets as the human version of mad cow disease, but that is misleading – most CJD cases don’t even come from contaminated meat.

There are two types of CJD, classical and variant.

Mr Burton has been diagnosed with a case of classical CJD, which affects about one in one million people per year.

His case is one of the more common kinds of classical cases, labelled sporadic. He joins around 90 per cent of patients, where the disease develops by chance.

Other classical cases are hereditary.

Then why are we all talking about Mad Cow Disease?

The confusion with Mad Cow Disease comes with the second kind of CJD – variant.

This type, which emerged in the UK in the 1990s, is linked to the consumption of meat products from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or Mad Cow Disease.

The risk of contracting his type of CJD is incredibly low – according to NSW Health, no cases of variant CJD have been identified in Australia and local cattle remain healthy.

People who have lived in the United Kingdom for more than six months between 1980 and 1996 are also excluded from donating blood, as a precaution.

But what about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)?

BSE, or Mad Cow Disease, is fatal and can take three to six years to develop in cattle.

It was first diagnosed in 1986 in the UK, and went on to affect more than 37,000 cows in 1992 alone.

If a person eats meat infected with BSE, they can contract variant CJD and develop behavioural changes and psychiatric symptoms.

Most cases are diagnosed after patients have died, as there is no screening. 

Comments are closed.