The most frightening moment of my journalistic career was reporting on the discovery in April 1996 of the link between BSE and CJD. Sensible scientists expressed fears that Britain could be in for a large epidemic of incurable brain disease as a result of people having eaten meat contaminated with mad cow disease.
Those fears persisted as the annual death toll from vCJD – the form of disease linked to BSE – rose to 28 in 2000. Thankfully that year turned out to be the peak.
The annual report of the National CJD Surveillance unit, published this week, shows that just one person died of vCJD last year compared with five in 2007.
The unit’s up-to-date monthly surveillance figures, also out this week, show two vCJD deaths in 2009 and four definite or probable vCJD patients still alive.
There will almost certainly be a few more vCJD cases over the next few years. All are of course horrific tragedies for the patients and their families.
The number may even pick up again if it turns out that prions (the infectious proteins responsible) have been spread through blood transfusions – or if people in different genetic groups, who have not yet succumbed, turn out to be susceptible but with much long incubation periods.
But we have been spared the terrible mind-destroying epidemic that seemed possible in the late 1990s.