A Mad Cow Thriller With A Dose Of Paranoia


Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague

By Richard Rhodes

Simon & Schuster 250pp $24

Sometimes it seems a miracle that humanity survives at all, let alone that people are living longer and healthier lives. Every month brings warnings of dire new threats. Estrogen-mimicking chemicals are said to be sending sperm counts plunging. An epidemic of cancer has been caused by pesticides, power lines, and food additives. And the combination of changing climates and growing populations may unleash other horrors like the Ebola virus, cutting a swath of death around the planet. Unless we die of hype first.

Now, Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of yesterday's doomsday threats, nuclear bombs, leaps into the fray. In Deadly Feasts, Rhodes raises "the terrifying specter of an ineradicable, untreatable, irreversibly fatal disease whose spread is stealthy and insidious and...unstoppable," according to a publisher's blurb. The normally restrained Rhodes warns that "nothing that you are about to read is fiction." To set the mood, he opens with a description of a New Guinea cannibal feast: "Out came the dark red heart gory with clotting blood. Out came the looping coils of intestines, dully shining."

So what is this terrible new plague? None other than mad-cow disease and eerily similar ailments. Recent deaths in Britain have raised legitimate fears of a human epidemic caused by eating infected meat. That has touched off panic in Europe and has prompted the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to take new steps--proposing a ban on feeding sheep and cattle parts to other ruminant animals--to prevent the same thing from happening here. It's a hot topic. Indeed, Deadly Feasts has an unpolished feel, as if rushed to market before interest wanes--or before the FDA's action renders most of the U.S. fears moot.

Still, the story of how medical sleuths probed the mysteries of this family of diseases is a compelling one, and Rhodes tells it adroitly. The tale reaches back hundreds of years, to when farmers first noticed sheep frantically scraping against walls and fences before dying. Hence their name for the disease: scrapie. But the story takes off in 1957, when American research physician Carlton D. Gajdusek arrived in New Guinea to study what he called "child growth and development in primitive cultures." There, he learned of a strange new disease, kuru, that was killing off one group of Stone Age tribespeople.

For years, Gajdusek and his fellow researchers were stumped. Kuru was always fatal. Yet victims' bodies never showed typical inflammatory reactions against disease. No drug had any effect. And no one could figure out how the plague was transmitted or why it mainly struck women and children.

A first clue came in 1959, when veterinary pathologist William J. Hadlow noticed that the spongy degeneration in the brains of sheep felled by scrapie matched the so-called spongiform pattern in kuru victims. Since researchers knew that scrapie could be transmitted by feeding infected brains to sheep, the implication was clear: Kuru was passed along when New Guinea women and children ritualistically ate their dead.

Gajdusek, however, wasn't convinced. He wanted first to prove that kuru could be experimentally transmitted from humans to chimps or monkeys. In one of several glimpses that Rhodes provides into the seamy side of science, Gajdusek responded to Hadlow's suggestion that such experiments be done by lying that they were already under way. In fact, they wouldn't start for four more years. Gajdusek was clearly protecting his turf from interlopers. It worked. In 1976, he won a Nobel prize.

But tying kuru's spread to cannibalism was only part of the puzzle. Rhodes describes the long and often tragic history of another deadly spongiform human disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). And he recounts both the successful efforts to infect a wide range of animals with kuru, CJD, or scrapie, and the birth of Britain's mad-cow epidemic in the late 1980s. Yet these developments only deepened the central mystery: No one has yet found even a trace of a virus or bacterium. So what could be causing these spongiform diseases?

The leading candidate is a misshapen version of a naturally occurring protein, dubbed a prion. It seems to act like a template, causing the normal, benign version to change shape and accumulate in the brain. What's more, "good" proteins may spontaneously go "bad," triggering disease even without exposure to infected meat.

Even mad-cow buffs may find new details in Rhodes's account. But I wish he had had more time to explore certain issues. Was it really necessary to infect thousands of chimps and other critters? How much did scientists' quest for fame delay a solution? And how should we judge the enigmatic Gajdusek, who last month pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of one of the 38 Micronesian children he raised and educated in the U.S.? Perhaps the underlying story is the clash between the Stone Age culture--and its freewheeling sexual practices--that Gajdusek loved and the far more straitlaced West.

The book also would have been more believable if Rhodes had toned down his warnings about the risk of getting CJD in the U.S. True, it's a scary time to be a beef-eater in Britain, where the evidence suggests that mad cow disease is being transmitted to people. We won't know for years if dozens or many thousands will get it. But as long as the FDA moves ahead, there's no evidence that we have much to fear yet in the U.S. except fear-mongering itself.

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