Experts yesterday [Wednesday] warned that BSE and/or its human form, the brain-wasting disease Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob (vCJD) is still likely to strike Australia – and the country had best be prepared.

There have been no cases reported of either disease in Australia. However, according to an article in The Age, the head of the Australian Government’s advisory committee on BSE, Graeme Ryan, said that Australian residents who have travelled to Europe, or indeed European citizens who are currently living in Australia, could well have picked up vCJD and be incubating the disease, which usually takes at least five years.

vCJD is contracted by humans who have eaten meat infected with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), and causes brain degeneration and, eventually, paralysis. More than 100 people in the UK and other European countries have already succumbed to the fatal disease. It has already been diagnosed in the UK, Ireland, France, Italy and Hong Kong and is suspected to be in Japan. A UK citizen was also recently diagnosed while in the US, although as the disease is not transmitted person-to-person, this does not mean the US meat industry is affected.

Colin Masters, of the pathology department at Melbourne University, who is helping the Australian government develop a rapid response system that could be launched if a suspected case was reported in Australia, said: “It’s highly likely we’ll see a similar situation here in Australia”.

The government’s new action plan will keep the advisory committee on red alert for suspected cases. General practitioners (family doctors) are trained in how to recognise symptom, and the advisory committee would be geared up to trace the origins of any confirmed infection.

Two years ago, Australia banned blood donations from anyone who had lived in the UK for more than six months, and early last year the government banned all beef from European countries that were unable to prove they were clean.