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Mad Cow Disease

Several cows in a field are depicted in this image. BSE
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly referred to as “mad cow disease,” is a fatal neurodegenerative disease. BSE affects only cattle.

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is a degenerative neurological disorder (brain disease) thought to be the human manifestation of BSE. vCJD is ultimately fatal. It is very rare, affecting only one in one million.

Photo by: Stephen Kirkpatrick, courtesy of USDA      

Transmission and Symptoms
  • vCJD is thought (but not proven) to be transmitted through the con­sumption of infected animal tissue, specifically beef.
  • vCJD is a neurodegenerative disease, usually presenting itself similarly to dementia.
  • Other symptoms:
    • Prominent psychiatric/behavioral symptoms
    • Delayed neurologic signs
    • Painful sensations such as burn­ing or pins and needles from neurological malfunctions
  • Caution should be exercised by those in Europe and other areas with indigenous cases of BSE.
  • You may consider avoiding beef or beef products that are not solid tissue (sausage, ground beef, and brains).
  • Be aware of beef recalls when they occur.
  • Remember that the possibility for infected beef is very small.
  • Currently, there is no treatment for vCJD.
  • It is an ultimately fatal disease, with average illness duration of 14 months.

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Where to Find Additional Information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 

Information for International Travelers— 

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Downloadable PDF