Britain may be facing a Mad Cow time bomb. New research suggests that up to 4,000 people there unknowingly carry the human form of mad cow disease. Some may already be passing it on through blood transfusions and contaminated surgical instruments, so the disease may continue to kill for decades.

Pathologists examined more than 12,500 tonsil and appendix specimens from hospital operations and found evidence of the prion for Creutzfeld Jakob disease, the human form of Mad Cow, in three of them. If these statistics are the same for the whole of Britain, it means that about 3,800 people carry the deadly prion and don’t know it.

“I find these results very concerning,” says Dr. John Collinge. “Our experience is that looking at appendix samples will underestimate the true picture. In addition, no test is 100% effective, and you don’t know at what stage in the incubation period the test will be positive.”

Just because people may be carrying the prion, this does not mean they will inevitably get the disease, but it does mean they can pass it on to others. People with a particular genetic pattern are most susceptible to the disease, and so far all the U.K. deaths come from this group; however, others may get it after a longer incubation period. Cases of kuru, a prion disease affecting cannibals in Papua New Guinea who eat infected brains, continue to appear 50 years after cannibalism ended.

When Mad Cow hits the U.S., will the government tell us the truth?

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