Understanding the Potential Dangers of Prion Diseases

2011-01-12 | |
Last updated: 2011-01-12

What Is Biggest Risk For The Spread Of Prion Disease?

While all of these causes for the development of prion disease are possible, the biggest risk of infection in humans comes as a result of contaminated food supplies. Most people are aware that in the early 1990’s, 100,000 cattle in the UK were slaughtered and disposed off after roughly 200 people developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease from eating affected meat. The contamination of the meat was caused because the animal feed fed to the cows contained processed beef products itself. Essentially, by feeding beef products to the cattle, farmers were concentrating the levels of prions within the animals.

Similar possibilities for contamination of the food chain are also suspected in the case of fish farming. A neurologist from the University of Louisville sees no reason why fish that are fed beef products would not pass along the infection in the same manner. While no confirmed links between prion disease and fish farms have been made, the sometimes-long incubation time for the disease justifies erring on the side of caution. This researcher and his colleagues have called for a ban on such feeding practices until their safety can be assessed.

Part of the reason that these concerns exist is because prions are very tough and can resist typical treatments that normally kill viruses and bacteria. They are resistant to heat, radiation, ultraviolet light, and even many disinfectants. In one test, researchers from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke found that prions could withstand more 15 minutes at more than 130 degrees Celsius or 270 degrees Fahrenheit. In many cases, they can even survive normal cooking temperatures and times. This makes them relatively dangerous when they are present in our food.


With their resilience to standard infection control practices and their ability to spread in the food chain and blood supplies, infectious prions have the potential to do cause deadly outbreaks. Despite being rare, prion diseases are a risk because of the relatively limited knowledge of current medical science. Because of this, it is important that our regulators take significant preventative steps whenever new knowledge about the risks of these diseases is discovered. In turn, we citizens must keep an eye on our regulators to ensure that they stay current.

A future article will cover new research in prion diseases, detection and potential treatments being developed. If you are concerned about the food supply and emerging diseases such as prion diseases, share your thoughts in the health forums.

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Category: Disease Information, Disease Prevention, General Health, Health Risks

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