MINISTERS are to look into funding a UK-wide investigation of “hidden” mad cow disease infection in the British population.
The promise was made by the Government in response to a select committee report on variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (vCJD), the human version of the brain-destroying cattle illness.
Evidence suggests that the rogue prion proteins responsible for the disease in genetically susceptible people can have a very long incubation period.
In some cases individuals could carry the infection for decades, or even all their lives, without developing any symptoms, experts believe.
MPs on the Science and Technology Select Committee said they feared the vCJD “storm” that caused widespread alarm in the late 1990s may only have abated and could return.
In their report, they call for a large-scale study of vCJD prevalence to be conducted using a new diagnostic blood test developed by Medical Research Council (MRC) scientists.
Outlining the Government’s response, Public Health Minister Jane Ellison said: “We will explore the possibility of using the prototype test developed by the Medical Research Council Prion Unit to carry out a blood prevalence study, as the Committee recommended.”
But the Government pointed out that a number of scientific and technical hurdles had to be crossed before such a study could be undertaken.
It also stressed that there were competing research funding priorities, and said starting the work within 12 months as suggested by the select committee was “ambitious”.
A total of 175 cases of vCJD were reported in the UK and 49 in other countries between October 1996 and March 2011.
The origin of the disease was traced to meat contaminated with brain and spinal cord tissue, especially cheap-cut burgers and pies consumed in the 1980s.
Scientists discovered that variant CJD was effectively the same disease as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which affects cattle. It is always fatal and there is no cure.
Strict controls have been in place since 1996 to prevent infectious prions from entering the human food chain and the use of meat-and-bone mix has been outlawed.
It is also possible for vCJD to be transmitted through blood transfusions, and measures have been introduced to prevent this happening.
Cases of vCJD peaked in 2000, when 28 people died from the disease in the UK.
There were no confirmed deaths in 2012.
Variant CJD, which progressively destroys the brain and is always fatal, caused a major health scare when it first emerged in the UK in 1986.
Scientists learned it was basically the same infection that caused bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle.
The disease jumped into humans through the consumption of infected meat, notably beefburgers.
It could also be transmitted via contaminated surgical instruments and blood transfusions.
Despite fears of an epidemic, the disease has proven to be rare.
Variant CJD has killed a total of 229 people since it was first identified, including 177 from the UK.
But the infection can lie dormant for years – possibly decades – before causing any symptoms.
It has been estimated up to one in 2,000 people in the UK may be carrying the misshapen prion proteins believed to cause the disease.