The incidence of the human form of mad cow disease increased sharply by 20% in the last year, according to scientists from the vCJD Surveillance Unit at Edinburgh University.

Talking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, Professor James Ironside said that it is very difficult to tell how the deadly disease will affect people in the future; estimates of the final total of vCJD cases range from a couple of hundred to 140,000.

The disease has already caused the deaths of over 100 people in the UK, but Ironside admitted: “Because of the uncertainties associated with the disease, the unknown incubation period, genetic factors that are probably associated with different susceptibility – it makes modelling the future very difficult.”

According to the scientific unit, people living in Scotland and the north of England are more than twice as likely to develop vCJD as those living in the south. Ironside suggested that this may be down to genetic susceptibility or a greater proliferation of low-grade meat in these areas. However he told Today listeners that there is no clear explanation of why geography should play such a large role in vCJD incidence.

To address the theory that more low-grade meat (in particular “mechanically recovered meat”, MRM) entered the food chain in the northern areas of the UK, the government advisory body Seac (Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee) has been asking food companies for five years to reveal the extent to which they used MRM in the past. It said however that its investigations have been “continually thwarted”.

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