travel button

Will we ever know the truth about BSE?

Boz magazine, 46: 14-15, February 1998.

Brian J Ford

You won’t have heard of Gerald Wells. He is a vet, and if he appeared on television, with Rolf Harris on his arm and his finger up a dog’s bum, he’d be a household name. Mr Wells is one of the great figures of twentieth century pathology, but much of his work has been censored. He is the scientist who in 1986 first recognised BSE in cattle. In 1990 he triumphed again, this time correctly recognising when the disease spread to cats. Not only is he the man who identified ‘mad cow disease’, but he is also the discoverer of a new ‘mad cat disease’ which has since been found in ocelots, cheetas and pumas.

Scientists who fight disease form a gallery of celebrities. People know the names of Fleming (penicillin), Jenner (vaccination), Pasteur (sour beer) and even Prusiner (who won the Nobel Prize for coining the ‘prion theory’ for the spongiform diseases). Where is the name of Wells, the genius who identified these brain diseases for the first time in history? He is nowhere to be seen. He remains invisible because of official censorship. Here, in the most scientific era of all time, there are controls on what the scientific community is allowed to know. When BSE was first recognised it was obviously related to scrapie, the age-old disease of sheep. In Whitehall the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAAF) immediately discouraged anyone from mentioning ‘BSE’ and ‘scrapie’ in the same breath.

In 1990 Mr Wells was presented with the body of a Siamese cat named Sam. Even for a Siamese cat, Sam had been acting strangely before his death. Gerald Wells’s diligence and scientific skills proved Sam had succumbed to a completely unheard-of condition - it was the first case of feline spongiform encephalopathy. In the time-honoured traditions of science, he prepared a paper describing the discovery of this new disease. The moment the Ministry heard of it, they started denying its veracity. They even used the draconian powers of the Official Secrets Act to censor his conclusions.

A year ago Professor Alan Ebringer of King’s College, London wrote to tell me that he had a theory of his own on BSE. He was wondering if it could be related to organisms normally present in the intestines of cattle, and to prove the point he needed to test specimens of serum from cattle with BSE. When he requested some, MAFF refused to let him have any samples. In Scotland, Dr Hugh Fraser (a distinguished specialist in these diseases) admitted that he would no longer be eating sausages and pies, because of the current concern over BSE. He was immediately censured by the Ministry. Stephen Dealler, who had worked in the field for twelve years, began complaining over the secrecy surrounding BSE, and was suddenly told his clinical position was being cancelled. He wrote a vivid book, Lethal Legacy, which documented his battle for the facts of the matter.

Two other eminent scientists felt themselves to be so threatened that they had their books independently published. Richard Lacey’s Mad Cow Disease was produced by a small company registered in the Channel Islands, whilst Harash Narang (who claimed to have perfected a test for the disease) borrowed money from his mother to have his book The Link privately printed. It was produced in India. With uneven printing, see-through paper and a cheap plastic jacket, it must be one of the most idiosyncratic books in the history of pathology.

The last administration seemed determined to do as little as possible to limit the profits of the beef industry, and left the public confused and threatened by forces they could not understand. The current Government are the opposite: they simply ban items of the diet by statute. Both regimes share one crucial characteristic - they have done nothing to put the facts openly and honestly in front of the public, allowing people to make up their own minds. The latest ban - of beef on the bone - is perhaps the most foolish measure ever seen. The risks to human health are incalculably small. Walk downstairs, drive to the shop, have a cigarette or make love … in each case you are subjecting yourself to a higher risk than beef-on-the-bone is ever likely to provide. Beef already threatens us with a greater danger of disease (through its fat content or contamination with E. coli O157) than we currently face from BSE.

Where is the evidence of the epidemic of ‘biblical proportions’ that is regularly forecast? We have had six or seven cases of the new human form of BSE each year for the last four years. Epidemics always show a steady increase in cases: half a dozen in the first sample, a hundred or two in the second; tens of thousands in the third. Remaining at the same level for several years running does not signify to me that we are on the verge of a major epidemic. This new disease has terrible and tragic consequences, but it remains one of the rarest infections known to science. It is also one of the least infectious diseases ever seen. Millions of people have eaten the infection in beef, yet just over twenty have succumbed. To add to the irony, the legal ban of beef on the bone was announced in the same month as a multi-million pound European subsidy to tobacco farmers.

Science has always been concerned with factual knowledge - suddenly it is being regulated by politicians, and controlled by threats and censorship. The single duty of scientists is to divine the facts; the sole responsibility of health advisers is to make the facts available. The Labour government has boasted of its spirit of openness, and I am not the only scientist who is waiting to see it pull its finger out, and give people the facts.

Go to the next in the series, to the previous article, or to the 'Boz' Features title index.