A Texas man recently suffered first from anxiety and depression, then hallucinations, followed by a stroke-like immobility of one side of his face. Eventually he died at just over 40, 18 months after his symptoms first appeared. He was diagnosed with mad cow disease only after an autopsy was conducted following his death.
The concerning thing is how he contracted mad cow disease at all – experts think he was exposed in another country more than a decade ago.
The man’s case was published recently in Emerging Infectious Diseases and marks the fifth case ever reported in the U.S. All other cases affected people in other countries. His diagnosis was confounding to health professionals. How did a rare disease like mad-cow show up in a man in Texas when the original contamination of beef happened more than ten years ago in the U.K.?
Originally, British ranchers noticed that their cows were dying of strange neurological diseases that they hadn’t seen before. Before dying, their cows would become aggressive and lame. It took some time for scientists to link these deaths to mad-cow.
Mad cow is caused when rogue proteins attach to the brain and spinal cord. Eventually they damage brain tissue. The deadly proteins were coming from feed that contained ground up brains of sheep and cows. Once the rangers stopped feeding their animals this atrocious mix, not surprisingly, the cows stopped contracting mad cow disease.
It took from 1980 to 1996 for experts to figure all this out, but over that duration beef was contaminated and shipped all over the world. More than 200 people died from the disease. It spread to 12 different countries.
In each and every case of mad cow disease, the people who died from it either ate UK beef or beef that was imported from the UK.
This is partly why the Texas man’s case is so confusing, since the source of his infection is unclear.
According to Dr. Atul Maheshwari, a neurologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, the patient lived in the U.S. for 14 years before ever becoming sick. Maheshwari doesn’t think he caught the disease in the U.S. since they did not import U.K. beef since 2003, but it can take more than 10 years for the symptoms of mad cow disease to appear.
The Texas man likely contracted the disease from one of three countries: Kuwait, Lebanon, or Russia, where he had traveled. All three imported U.K. beef.
“The risk of infection would have been highest in our patient when he lived in Kuwait, but wedo not think,” he stresses, “that [the new case in Texas] means it is more risky now to eat beef today in Kuwait, Lebanon or Russia.”
Since 2012, there have been only four cases of mad cow disease detected in people around the world, including the one in Texas. The U.K. has since improved its tracking and monitoring of cattle.
Maheshwari hopes the Texas case will have a few repercussions. Firstly, he hopes doctors and nurses will be more aware that mad cow disease can occur even in the U.S., and that watching out for this disease is the responsibility of health officials around the world.
“Since 1996, there have not been any known large epidemics in cows,” Maheshwari says.“But the U.S. has been monitoring the beef industry to make sure another epidemic does not occur.”