Great Moments in Alarmism

From March 21, 1996 (via Real Science)

Scientists studying Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in the field are still deeply divided about whether BSE can be transmitted to humans, and about the potentially terrifying consequences for the population.

"It's too late for adults, but children should not be fed beef. It is as simple as that," said Stephen Dealler, consultant medical microbiologist at Burnley General Hospital, who has studied the epidemic nature of BSE and its human form, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, since 1988.

He believes that the infectious agent would incubate in children and lead to an epidemic sometime in the next decade.

"Any epidemic in humans would start about 15 years after that in cattle, and about 250,000 BSE-infected cows were eaten in 1990. There could be an epidemic of this new form in the year 2005. These 10 cases were probably infected sometime before the BSE epidemic started."

His worst case scenario, assuming a high level of infection, would be 10 million people struck down by CJD by 2010. He thought it was now "too late" to assume the most optimistic scenario of only about 100 cases.

One of the great things about the Internet is that it is going to be much easier to hold alarmists accountable for wild scare-mongering predictions that prove to be absurd.  Though, I suppose Paul Ehrlich still gets respect in some quarters despite being 0-for-every-prediction-he-has-ever-made, so maybe its too much to hope for accountability.


  1. Curtis:

    Using BSE as an example of alarmism is disingenuous at best. In the early stages, there was cover up and misrepresentation of the evidence of the dangers including the infamous statement by that there was “clear scientific evidence that British beef is perfectly safe.”

    To give everybody involved some credit, prions are bizarre and poorly understood. I highly recommend “Deadly Feasts: The "Prion" Controversy and the Public's Health” by Richard Rhodes.

    “From the very beginning of the BSE outbreak, not only was knowledge misrepresented by the British government, but in some cases it was even withheld. For example, after the initial diagnosis of BSE by the SVS in late 1986, there was an embargo placed on the sharing, or making public, of any BSE-related information that ran until mid-1987. Also, up until at least 1990, outside scientists that requested access to BSE data to conduct further studies were denied, despite the fact the improved scientific understanding of the disease had the greatest potential to minimise the impact of the epidemic. Even government scientists within the CVL have acknowledged that there was a culture of suppressing information, to the point that studies revealing damaging evidence (e.g. that there was a causal link between BSE and new the encephalopathy found in cats) were denied publication permission [Ashraf, 2000].

    The withholding of such information allowed the government to publicly assert that BSE was just like another version of scrapie – not transmissible to humans – and that there was “clear scientific evidence that British beef is perfectly safe” [UK House of Commons, 1990]. This was certainly a misrepresentation of the knowledge held at the time, and one that was only possible due to the suppression of some scientific findings and recommendations. Of course, the main reason for this misrepresentation of knowledge was the protection of agricultural and industrial interests – the specific stakeholder favoured in this case was the British beef industry, which stood to lose billions of pounds if a large number of its animals had to be slaughtered, if export bans were put in place, or if costly regulations were implemented. “

  2. TG:

    BSE was the scare I grew up with, I remember when it hit me that I was going to die, one night when I was in my early teens. And I was sure it was going to be some day soon, due to all the meat I had eaten. I calculated that I would most probably be dead by 18. The thing is, I read newspapers back then - I've felt much healthier since kicking that habit.

  3. John Moore:

    The concern about BSE was justified, for a while. I followed the whole thing from start to finish on the Pro-Med mailing list, and plenty of serious epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists were alarmed. As Curtis wrote, prion diseases were (and still are, btw) poorly understood. It was even worse with cross-species risk.

    At the time, a whole lot of cattle in England were dying of this disease, which had never been encountered before. It had the symptoms and pathological findings of other spongiform encephalopathies, but it was a new disease. Kuru, a related human disease transmitted by cannibalism, claimed its last victim only in 2005, decades after cannibalism ended in the tribe. As it turned out, the nvCHD (Mad Cow Disease) killed over 100 people, in a rather horrible way. Because of the long latency of the disease, it wasn't until after 2000 that it became apparent that the disease was not going to kill many more.

    While there was some alarmism, nvCJD is actually a really poor example of alarmism.

    Better to look at Obama unnecessarily assuring Americans they won't be harmed by the Japanese nuclear problem (a great way to scare folks to death).

  4. joshv:

    Curtis: Prions don't exist.

  5. GoneWithTheWind:

    In the early stages of global warming alarmism there was cover up and misrepresentation of the evidence. hmmmm!

  6. Dr. T:

    We still don't fully understand prions. However, we do understand epidemiology. In prion diseases of sheep, cattle, humans, etc., one of three things happened for the disease to spread: brains or salivary glands were eaten (usually mixed into animal feeds), blood products from prion-affected patients were transfused, or the prions were transmitted directly from human brain to human brain via neurosurgical electrodes. There are no proven cases of transmission of prion diseases from eating animal flesh (muscle).

    The bovine spongiform encephalopathy cases from Great Britain probably were due to eating hamburger that contained some brain or salivary gland tissue. Fifteen years after the BSE scare stories began, the total number of people worldwide with probable British beef-related prion disease is 188. That's not good, but it isn't a pandemic.

  7. Ignoramus:

    Re: Prions, a follow-up to Dr T

    My father died over 30 years ago from a rare neurological disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. It presents symptoms similar to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), but has a different but still unknown cause. Dudley Moore (who starred with Bo Derek in 1979’s “10”) is PSP’s celebrity victim.

    30 years ago it took us nearly two years to get a proper diagnosis of PSP. PSP may not be so rare, as it’s still often misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s, ALS or even Alzheimer’s.

    Heredity may have a role in its cause, but if it does it’s faint.

    Prions have been studied as a cause, and so far as I know is the leading candidate.

    Smaller than a virus, prions are little bits of knarly protein that can self-replicate in a host. They can propagate through the food supply, which is why Britain had its Mad Cow Disease scare.

    I don‘t lose sleep over prions. It wouldn’t make my top 100 list of “Disaster Waiting to Happen.” But it is worthy of study, without need for hysterical fear-mongering. That’s why I thought we supported universities.

  8. Dan:

    Alarmism isn't always bad. People who warned about the danger of Hitler were dismissed as alarmists in the 1930s. Sometimes the alarmists are right.

  9. invoice:

    Continuous research on this disease is required in order to determine if it has lethal consequences to the human population. Rumors might spread that would cause great alarm to the population through the internet.

  10. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    >>> Though, I suppose Paul Ehrlich still gets respect in some quarters despite being 0-for-every-prediction-he-has-ever-made, so maybe its too much to hope for accountability.

    Accountability is for Republicans to be responsible for. Even if they aren't guilty.

  11. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    >> That’s why I thought we supported universities.

    What, like the ones in support of AGW?

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