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30 October 2000

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Fears on extent of mad cow crisis rise

LONDON: Even as scientists said the death toll from new variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (VCJD) could be badly understated, Britain's youngest victim of the human variant of mad cow disease, a 14-year-old girl, has died.

Zoe Jeffries from Wigan, near Manchester, contracted the disease two years ago. She had become the country's 81st person confirmed to have died from VCJD, according to the Sunday Times on Saturday.

Last week a government report said 80 people had died of the disease of a total of 85 who had become infected. The disease cannot be conclusively identified except by autopsy - a fact that has led to varying estimates of the number diagnosed as ill with the disease.

The recent death of a 74-year-old man raised fears that other deaths from the disease among the elderly might have been missed, with doctors interpreting VCJD symptoms as senile dementia. The oldest previous confirmed victim was 55.

Opinion in Britain remains divided on how many will eventually die. Scientists had believed that most people were infected in the late 1980s but there is now evidence from the government inquiry into bovine spongiform encephalopathy, published last week, that the disease may have entered the food chain in the 1970s.

The latest developments have led John Collinge, a member of the government's advisory body on BSE and VCJD, to revise the minimum number of expected deaths from 100 - which will be reached early next year - to 1,000.

The death of Jeffries highlights the difficulties of diagnosing VCJD four years after the government acknowledged both its existence and the poor standard of care that victims have received.

Her symptoms emerged in June 1998. Her mother, Helen Jeffries, said, ''One morning Zoe got up and just didn't do anything. She just cried. It was as though she went to bed one person and got up a different one.''

It was not until June 1999 that doctors from the CJD surveillance unit diagnosed her illness as VCJD.

Although her mother said she was filled with remorse because she had fed her daughter cheap beef burgers, she criticised the lack of information and knowledge about BSE and VCJD. The girl was shown bedridden on television repeatedly over the past week.(Agencies)

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