'Mad cow disease' - why you can't donate blood, breast milk and tissues
Wednesday 4 April 2018
Those who were alive to witness the ‘mad cow’ outbreaks in the United Kingdom during the 80s and 90s will remember dramatic news stories of farms being evacuated, thousands of cows killed and their bodies burned, and the public’s fear of the mysterious and deadly disease.
Even though it’s been 16 years since the last major outbreak in the UK, the consequences of ‘mad cow’ are still being felt, even here in Australia. For people who lived in the UK for six months or more between 1980 and 1996, one of the major effects is an inability to donate bodily fluids and tissues, including blood and breast milk.
We get a lot of questions about why this is the case. Below we’ve explained what ‘mad cow’ disease is and why those who might have come into contact with it aren’t able to participate in some medical donation programs in Australia.
What is ‘mad cow’ disease?
The first thing to know is that ‘mad cow’ is not the official name of the disease. In cows, the disease is called Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). In humans it’s called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).
In cows, the initial symptoms of BSE can include issues with walking, changes in behaviour including increased aggression and anxiety, and tremors. Over time, the animal loses the ability to balance and walk, can lose weight and have decreased milk supply. Weeks or months after the first symptoms showing, the cow will fall into a coma and die.
In humans, the symptoms of vCJD are similar to BSE in cows. Early symptoms include changes in personality and behaviour, difficulty thinking, muscle weakness and loss of control over movement. A person might experience confusion, speech abnormalities, agitation and hallucinations; the symptoms can be similar to dementia. Eventually, they will become comatose and die. There is currently no cure for vCJD, with treatment focused on making the unwell person as comfortable as possible.
Humans contract vCJD after eating the meat of a cow with BSE. Caused by misformed proteins called prions that affect the brain, in both cows and humans the disease can be dormant for a long time before symptoms begin to show. Some studies indicate that it might be possible for symptoms to develop up to 50 years after infection.
There is currently no test to indicate whether a person has vCJD while they are still alive – a definite diagnosis requires examination of brain tissue conducted after the person has died.
Why can’t I donate blood, breast milk or tissues?
It’s possible for the prions that cause vCJD to be transmitted through donated blood even if the donor shows no signs of disease. This has happened four times in the UK. Current estimates are that around 30,000 Britons – or 1 in 2,000 people in the country – carry the prions that cause vCJD, and there’s no screening blood test available for vCJD.
Because of this risk of transmission, in Australia donated blood, breastmilk and tissues are not accepted from people who lived in the UK for six months or more between 1980 and 1996. This includes British people who have since immigrated to Australia, and Aussies who were visiting the UK for an extended period at the time.
Being told you can’t donate because there’s a very small (but real) chance you might pass on vCJD can be frustrating, especially if you’ve been allowed to donate in other countries and you feel perfectly healthy. Australia is in the privileged position of being able to strictly monitor and control medical donations so as not to spread vCJD. Other countries, like the United States, also have similar measures in place.
The United Kingdom does accept donations from people who lived in the country during the ‘mad cow’ period. If they didn’t, there simply wouldn’t be enough donations to provide medical care to people in need. It’s a risk/benefit equation that the nation has had to weigh up, which Australia is fortunate to not have to.
Remember, if you’re not able to donate in Australia it doesn’t mean that your blood, breastmilk or tissues are considered ‘not good enough’ for Australians: it’s about being as safe as possible. There are many other conditions that also prevent people from donating in Australia for their safety and recipients’ safety.
Being a donor is only one way of helping the organisations that collect medical donations in Australia. If you’re unable to donate, there are many other things you can do that will help save lives.
What can I do instead of donation?
Spread the word
The Red Cross and other health organisations often post call outs for blood donations when supply is running low, just as the various milk banks and tissue donation organisations do. If you can’t donate yourself, help spread the word by sharing posts on social media or talking with colleagues, friends or family about why it’s an important issue to you. Encourage others who can donate to do so and help create a strong, positive conversation about the importance of donation.
Donate your time and expertise
Many of the organisations that collect and coordinate medical donations require volunteers to help with administration, fundraising, promotion and events. Consider donating your time or offering some ‘pro bono’ hours to share your expertise with an organisation.
Donate your dollars
If you’re in the financial position to do so, you can donate money towards medical research or the organisations that run donation services.