Mad cow link in hunter's death

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 05:00 17/11/2012
John Andrews
ONE IN A MILLION CASE: At first John Andrews thought he had an ear infection. He went on to suffer seizures and within weeks could not swallow, eat or talk.

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A meat inspector and keen hunter was killed by a rare brain disease linked to the human form of mad cow disease.

John Andrews, 63, of Napier is one of five New Zealanders confirmed to have died of the sporadic form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) this year.

His widow, Lyn, is now speaking out about the mysterious disease that saw Mr Andrews go from thinking he had an ear infection in April, to suffering stroke-like, brain-wasting symptoms. He died in June.

CJD is a rare, unexplained brain disease that rapidly and severely affects the brain, has no cure and is eventually fatal.

It is a different form of the disease variant CJD that struck Britain in the 1990s through probable human consumption of meat contaminated with bovine spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) - known as mad cow disease.

The doctor who runs New Zealand's register of CJD cases believes Mr Andrews' career and cause of death are purely coincidental, but a "point of interest" nonetheless.

Mrs Andrews said her husband went on antibiotics for a suspected ear infection when he felt "something was going on in his head". He then forgot his bank pin number, and could not hold a pen.

He developed drunk-sounding speech, suffered seizures and within weeks could not swallow, eat or talk.

"He was a real solid hunting, fishing man. He was just so well, and then boom.

"People should think about it when someone suffers from depression or what looks like early stages of dementia."

She commended Hawke's Bay Hospital staff, but even they were "baffled" by his symptoms, she said.

There were stages of false hope that it was curable but the "very shocking disease" damaged the brain so much they did not know what was going on.

With cases of literally one in a million, "it's bad luck".

People's ears "prick up" when they heard Mr Andrews was a meat inspector, farmer and deer hunter for 40 years. But the last thing she wanted was scaremongering about the meat industry.

"That could be totally irrelevant and a coincidence. We would never know, even if it was from meat."

In the days before he died, Mrs Andrews recalled thinking "no wonder they refer to it as mad cow disease".

"When I looked at him, the way his eyes were, he looked like a little baby calf. It really blew me away. I don't think he knew."

Otago University neurologist Martin Pollock, who developed the Health Ministry-contracted CJD register 16 years ago, said Mr Andrews' autopsy tests indicated a "massive loss of brain cells". Latest results confirmed the very strong suspicion it was CJD.

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Each year about five people died from the disease, which the register monitored to find links and aid research in New Zealand.

"It's a devastating disease, to see your loved one losing ground day by day," Dr Pollock said. "Often within a few weeks they have gone from being independent to being totally dependent."

The sporadic variant - or spontaneous mutation - could not be stopped and it was purely about making the patient comfortable.

"It's a death sentence, it's always fatal. You may have this quite by chance, we don't really know what triggers it off."

And there was as yet no link to meat or animals.

"We haven't yet, either in New Zealand or elsewhere, found a consistent occupation that leads to this disorder."

Mr Andrews' occupation and hunting hobby was "a point of interest", but he did not think there was any correlation.

The only way to find links was "by the numbers" over time.

Mr Andrews is survived by four children and nine grandchildren.

BRITS TURNED VEGETARIANS AFTER 'MAD COW' SCARE

"Mad cow" disease hit British headlines in the early 1990s.

By 1995 dissident scientists were claiming the bovine disease, also known as BSE, could show up in humans who ate beef, as creutzfelt jakob disease (CJD).

In the public's mind this was confirmed when three British dairy farmers died of CJD in 1995. Another death was attributed to eating a beef pattie.

The taste for British beef rapidly fell as people ditched eating it and many - 1 million by one count - Brits switched to vegetarianism.

The European Union placed a global ban on British beef exports shortly after the British Government said it could not rule out a link between the bovine and human diseases.

The ban lasted until late in 1998.

Sales of New Zealand meat - seen as safe - increased in Europe and Kiwis who had been in Britain at known BSE times were banned from donating blood.

To quell public unease and lift the ban, a massive slaughter of all British cattle over 30 months old ensued. By late 1996, 730,000 had already been killed and more were going to slaughter at the rate of 55,000 a week.

While the public slowly returned to beef, and after the European ban was lifted, France continued to ban it.

In 1999, it emerged some French cattle were being fed raw sewage. It led to unexpected British support for the All Blacks when they played France at Twickenham in 1999.

Otago University neurologist Martin Pollock - who runs the New Zealand CJD register - was always on the lookout for the same variant that struck Britain, but as yet it has never been found in New Zealand.

"That would put our beef industry at risk."

New Zealand should be funding more research in an effort to protect its important beef industry, he said.

WHAT IS CJD?

 

A disease that rapidly and severely affects the brain, has no cure and is eventually fatal.

The variant form or "mad cow disease" struck Britain in the 1990s through probable human consumption of meat contaminated with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).

The sporadic form that is in NZ poses no risk to the meat industry.

Affects one out of a million people worldwide, but new variant cases are now very rare.

NZ records five sporadic CJD deaths each year, with most victims aged in their 60s and dying after 3-6 months.

Cause unknown.

This year's victims are an Auckland man and woman, a man from Tauranga, a man from Wellington and Mr Andrews from Napier.

 

Contact Jody O'Callaghan
Education reporter
Email: jody.o'callaghan@dompost.co.nz
Twitter: @miss_jodyo

- The Dominion Post

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