Husband breaks mad cow silence

By Time of article published Dec 9, 2000

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By Willem Steenkamp and Thami Ngidi

South Africa's first apparent case of mad cow disease, which was reported to the health authorities as early as June, remained a secret until this week.

On Saturday, Ken Eckard, 37, a Rustenburg electrician, ended the unexplained silence around the death of his wife Ronel, 35, earlier this year. Doctors and laboratory tests said the cause of death was Variable Creutzfeldt Jacob disease (vCJD), the strain of mad cow disease that occurs in humans.

When Ronel lost all feeling in her arms and legs and her speech became slurred, her husband knew there was something wrong with her.

A few days later, a brain biopsy was performed on Ronel and Eckard heard three words that brought his world crashing down: mad cow disease.

Now the single parent of 11-year-old Jo-Anie, he said he still did not know how his wife got the disease.

Officially, there have been no reported cases of mad cow disease in this country since it broke out in Britain in the late eighties, but experts do not discount the fact that the disease could be contracted by South Africans who have visited European countries. Experts say that statistically there should be at least one case in every one million of the population.

Eckard's wife showed the first signs of illness in February and died on June 22.

"I did not want to talk about this for months. My daughter struggled to deal with the loss of her mother and I felt it was a private family matter."

Months of tests followed the onset of Ronel's illness. Doctors suspected cancer and multiple sclerosis, but a brain biopsy two weeks before her death established that she had the human variant of mad cow disease. The tissue taken in the biopsy has since been destroyed.

"Because mad cow disease is a notifiable disease, the health authorities were notified. But no one has contacted me or tried to find out where my wife may have contracted the disease. She has never travelled overseas," said Eckard.

It was only when there was no follow-up by the health authorities that Eckard's friends and family finally convinced him to expose the cause of his wife's death.

"We were average meat eaters. We used to eat out about twice a week and my wife loved hamburgers.

"Today my daughter, who was crazy about hamburgers, will not touch the stuff. She will not even look at a hamburger. We don't know whether Ronel got it from that, but this is the effect it has had on my daughter," Eckard said.

He told The Sunday Independent: "The brain biopsy on my wife was done at the Prince Albert hospital in Rustenburg and the tests at Lancet Laboratories in Johannesburg. The tests confirmed she had the disease. I have the report."

The diagnosis was variant Creutzfeldt Jacob disease, the strain of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease.

Variant Creutzfeldt Jacob disease has claimed 89 lives in Britain where a mad cow disease scare brought the beef industry to its knees and led to thousands of cattle being destroyed in the late 1990s. Eating meat from infected animals is commonly suspected to be the cause of vCJD in humans.

Gideon Bruckner, director of National Veterinary Services, said no cases of BSE, which is found only in animals fed on contaminated feed, have been reported in South Africa.

Dr Bruckner said that after outbreaks of the disease in Britain, import control measures were instituted and since 1998 controls had been in place on all bone meal from Europe.

"We are still not importing meat from Britain," he said.

Both the animal form, BSE, and vCJD are varieties of a rare group of brain-wasting diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

Such illnesses cause microscopic holes in the brain. There is no known cure.

Animals displaying symptoms of nervous system problems are tested for BSE.

Cerebrospinal fluids of South African patients suspected of having brain-wasting diseases are normally sent to the National Institute of Health in the United States for analysis. However, these tests do not distinguish between the variants.

A brain biopsy can, however, determined which disease a patient has since the lesions on the brain are different.

According to Dr Ben Makgale, the doctor who examined her, tests done on Eckard two weeks before she died were consistent with vCJD.

No further tests were conducted to establish which of the variants of vCJD she was suffering from.

The tissue has since been destroyed.

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