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"Mad cow disease" from feeding your roses?

Do you feed your roses with bone meal? Not a good idea, says the world's foremost expert on a group of rare diseases, found in animals, that sometimes make their way into humans. Breathing in the dust from contaminated bone meal could be deadly, says Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek (GUY-doo-sheck), a brilliant Harvard Medical School graduate and Nobel laureate.

In his latest book, Deadly Feasts (Simon & Schuster), author Richard Rhodes traces the history of these diseases, called spongi-form encephalopathies, that reduce the brain to a spongy mass, causing their victims to stagger, fall, develop dementia and paralysis, and soon die a terrible death. The leading figure among the dedicated scientists studying these diseases during the past two to three decades is Dr. Gajdusek, who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1976 for his work implicating slow-acting viruses as the sources behind degenerative neurological disorders.

Dr. Gajdusek first encountered spongiform encephalopathy among women and children in a cannibalistic tribe, the Fore (FOR-ay) in remote New Guinea. Their disease, which they called kuru (KOO-roo), was initially thought to be genetic in origin, but because it occurred only in women and children, it became associated with the fact that only the women were cannibals. Unlike other cannibalistic tribes, whose men feasted on the remains of slain enemies, only the Fore women were involved in such practice, eating the remains of relatives who had died.

Learning that scrapie, a well-known disease of sheep in England, produced similar brain damage, Dr. Gajdusek and others studied the transmission of this disease in various animals. Eventually, they concluded that a manmade form of animal cannibalism was responsible. They showed that the disease could be transmitted to sheep and other animals fed with bone meal made from diseased animals. Although the disease was thus found to be the result of an infectious agent, that agent was unlike any previously known -- not a bacterium, virus, or parasite that could be killed by ordinary means of sterilization, but a strange protein molecule that resists destruction.

The feeding of bone meal to beef cattle factored into "mad cow disease" (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) in England. The recent outbreak there has caused experts to suspect that a strain of BSE exists in the United States as well. Unless something is done about the widespread use of bone meal made from diseased cattle in this country, they say, we may face even worse consequences than the British in dealing with their problem.

Some of these experts suggest that we quit eating beef -- a move that, if implemented, would have enormous economic consequences. Likewise, Dr. Gajdusek advises against using bone meal to fertilize plants. Whatever the controversy surrounding these new scientific revelations, gardeners might do well at least to heed the recommendation that appeared in the London Daily Telegraph last year: "...Wear gloves and a dust-excluding mask to avoid any risk of BSE when applying a spring dressing of blood and bone meal to roses and shrubs."
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Author:Brown, Edwin W.
Publication:Medical Update
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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