Unlike the sensationalized coverage of BSE — mad cow to every reporter or TV producer alive — back in the day, contemporary reporting is subdued, factual and actually accurate.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that lab tests have confirmed a diagnosis of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), a fatal brain disorder, in a Texas patient who recently died.
Since vCJD is linked to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, I braced myself the usual media overreach about the deadly threat of mad cow striking again. Having worked for and industry trade group in Washington, D.C., during the initial uproar in 2003, when a single dairy cow in Washington state was confirmed with BSE, I was prepared to fire off a column presenting an updated version of the massive file of exculpatory evidence that was assembled by industry scientists 10 years ago.
But the anticipated media outrage never happened.
Is it possible that the nation’s reporters and cable news producers have matured? That as a group, they now understand the big-picture context of BSE incidence data and the extremely low probability that this Texas case represented the proverbial “tip of the iceberg?”
Probably not. Personally, I think it’s more of a case of mad cow fatigue, but whatever the reason, it was truly refreshing to review several relatively balanced stories that — gasp! — actually reported the facts and relied on CDC data, rather than consumer advocate groups’ fear and loathing.
First identified in the late 1990s in Great Britain, variant CJD is a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by consumption of beef products from cows with BSE — “products” meaning blood and nervous system tissue, that is. In other words, a person has to be eating blood sausage or calf brains to consume enough of the infective prions to develop the disease. In fact, it turns out that humans need to be exposed to a significant “dose” of those prions, whereas cows tend to be quite sensitive to even relatively small doses of contaminated feed.
That’s one factoid the media got right.
As rare as it gets
The other is vCJD’s relative rarity. According to CDC, only about 220 cases of vCJD have been reported worldwide, a majority of them from the United Kingdom (177 cases) and France (27 cases), along with several other Western European countries.
That may seem like a lot, but we’re talking a population of more than 300 million people over the course of 20-plus years. That’s a predictive likelihood somewhere in the range of getting killed by a lightning strike. While you’re out on a golf course. On the 18th green. Talking to your broker. About to close a deal.