Mad cow disease is a deadly illness that can destroy the central nervous system in cattle. This ailment is also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE. Unfortunately for us, we too can get infected with this disease. The human form of this disease is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) and it's also fatal. We can get infected with this if we happen to eat nerve tissue such as brain or spinal cord of cattle that were infected with this disease. Like what it does to cattle, vCJD also destroys a human's brain and spinal cord. You'll probably be relieved to find out that no evidence yet exists that people can get this from eating muscle meat, which is the one used for ground beef and steaks.
The cause of either mad cow disease or vCJD has not yet been established. One theory says that it is caused by infectious proteins that are called prions. These proteins can be found in the brain, small intestine and spinal cord of infected cows. They are not found in the muscle meat or milk. Another theory suggests that it is caused by a virus that makes these proteins change. It is agreed though that when a cow is slaughtered and its nerve tissue is utilized as cattle feed, cows that eat these also become infected.
The initial symptoms that you will experience when you have vCJD include tingling and burning sensation on the face, hands, feet and legs. It may also bring psychotic behavior, dementia, and difficulty moving various parts of the body. As the disease progresses, a person is no longer able to walk or move around. A person may also fall into a coma. It's important to note however that these symptoms may not be immediately felt. In fact, for some people, it takes years for the symptoms to occur.
No single test can be done to diagnose this problem. If a doctor thinks that you might have vCJD due to your symptoms or the fact that your location has had an outbreak of mad cow disease, you will need to undergo imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) so that changes in the brain can be checked. Researchers are still in the process of developing a blood test for diagnosing vCJD. It's not yet available right now. The only way to confirm the diagnosis of this condition is through a brain biopsy.
Unfortunately, no cure has yet been invented for this condition. Treatment would only include symptom management as the disease progresses.
The best way to prevent infection is to avoid eating brain and spinal cord of cattle. Even if you don't think that the cow you're eating is infected with mad cow disease, you should still avoid intake of brain and spinal cord just to be sure.