The official name for mad cow disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). BSE is a fatal disease that attacks the nervous system of cattle. Humans who eat contaminated beef can contract a human version of mad cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Variant CJD was first described in 1996 in the United Kingdom. Its clinical and pathological characteristics are different from classic CJD. The human form of the disease is generally fatal, with death occurring within 13 months of the first symptoms.

Mad Cow Disease Transmission

BSE is highly transmissible from cow to cow, but is not as transmissible to humans. Humans must eat infected meat; cooking meat does not kill all bacteria associated with the disease. While milk products or cosmetic products containing cow parts aren’t thought to be a transmission factor, the US does take strict precautions when importing beef-related products or beef. The precautions are to protect both US cattle and US citizens.

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How Is Mad Cow Disease Diagnosed?

The symptoms of vCJD in humans can be difficult to diagnose because the illness follows a similar course as many other diseases. The median duration of illness for those affected by vCJD is 14 months. Some early symptoms are depression and dementia, as well as other prominent psychiatric/behavioral symptoms, painful dysesthesia, and delayed neurological signs. Other characteristics include presence of florid plaques on neuropathy and marked accumulation of protease-resistant prion protein on immunohistochemical analysis of brain tissue. An MRI only detects changes in the brain in the latter stages of the disease. A final vCJD diagnosis only comes at the time when imaging can confirm the presence of the disease.

Treatments for Mad Cow Disease

According to the CDC, no therapy exists that will cure vCJD or stop the progression of the disease. Medical professionals are only able to treat symptoms to make a person more comfortable as the disease progresses.

Should You or Your Patients Be Worried About vCJD?

The CDC says that contracting the human type of mad cow disease is highly unlikely. Because the US government takes the threat to domestic cattle seriously, it does ban a number of imports from affected areas of the world. In fact, the US banned Irish beef for over 15 years due to outbreaks of mad cow disease in Ireland. By purchasing approved beef, most Americans are able to protect themselves from vCJD.


  1. BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or Mad Cow disease). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. February 21, 2013.
  2. The basics of mad cow disease. WebMD website. Reviewed June 18, 2014.
  3. vCJD (Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. October 7, 2014.