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What’s Mad Cow Disease?

You might have heard news reports about mad cow disease and wondered: What the heck is that? Mad cow disease is an illness also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (say: BO-vine SPUN-jih-form en-seh-fah-LA-puh-thee), or BSE for short.

It’s called mad cow disease because it affects a cow’s nervous system, causing a cow to act strangely and lose control of its ability to do normal things, such as walk. An infected cow would act “mad,” which sometimes means mentally ill.

A cow with BSE develops these problems because it has developed an infection. This infection causes its brain to waste away and become spongy. Researchers are not completely sure how cows get this kind of infection, but they believe it comes from certain kinds of food given to cows. Some of this food contains the remains of dead cows that had the infection. These remains, especially the brains and spinal cords, may contain BSE.

Because BSE was a problem in the United Kingdom, the United States created rules to prevent problems in this country. The United States has had four cases of BSE in cows. But the government has taken steps so that infected meat does not get to people.

What Does This Have to Do With People?

If a person eats meat from a BSE-infected cow, the person is at risk for getting a human form of the disease, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD. It’s a very serious disease that affects the brain, but vCJD is very rare in the United States. Only three people in the United States have ever gotten it. And it is not contagious, meaning a person can’t catch it from someone who has it. Likewise, a cow that has BSE can’t infect other cows.

Because of the rules the government has put in place, it’s very unlikely that you or anyone you know will get vCJD.

What’s Being Done About BSE?

Many people in the United States are working to prevent BSE-contaminated beef from getting to stores. There are rules against using the brains or spinal cords from cattle to make food products. These parts of cows are more likely to have the proteins that cause BSE. In addition, there’s a testing system in place designed to identify cows that may have the disease. There’s also a recall system that allows companies to notify consumers and pull products off store shelves if there could be a problem with them.

What Should I Do?

Being a kid, you might be wondering about milk. Even though it comes from cows, BSE isn’t thought to be spread through milk or milk products.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: October 2013