Recently I volunteered to be a discussant at the Virginia Economics Association meeting. The paper I was asked to critique was “The Economic Impact of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy” by Dr. Brenda Ponsford, from Virginia Union University. (Yes, I got the “mad cow disease” paper.)
Other than taking some Agricultural Economics courses and having had to park behind the bullpens at Kansas State University when I was late to campus, I know little about cattle and their ailments. They have pretty eyelashes and snotty noses. They make good cheese. That is the extent of my knowledge about bovines.
I thought this disease existed only in the past. Mad cow disease (aka bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was a disease that received much attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The news reported on the slaughter and disposal of animals in the UK. Those of us who flew across the Atlantic were asked to walk across a disinfectant pad at the airport when re-entering the USA. People were upset that makers of beef fodder made cannibals of vegetarian animals. Then the news stopped reporting on the disease. I had assumed that this disease had been eradicated or controlled.
In preparing to discuss this paper at the Virginia Economics Association meeting, I was dismayed to learn that this is far from accurate. Once exposed, the disease is permanent, and reportedly 1 out of every 2,000 residents in the UK carries this genetic mutation. These results were realized in an odd way. When tonsils or appendices were removed, they were tested for the presence of the prions, or the genetically altered proteins that cause mad cow disease. Unlike a virus for which antiviral treatments are available or a bacterial infection for which antibiotics are used, there is no cure yet for genetic mutations caused by the prions that we label mad cow disease.
Those who carry these lethal protein prions will always be infected. Until December of last year, there was no known way to even diagnosis the disease before a post-mortem (after which little can be done to help the victim of mad cow disease.) Claudio Soto of the University of Texas in Houston accurately diagnosed those who carried the prions in a study of 151 people, and Daisy Bougard at the University of Montpellier in France accurately diagnosed those who carried the infection in a study which tested 274 people. If a treatment is not available, at least correct diagnosis for carrying the disease is around the corner.
This is a case of “ignorance is bliss.” I was far happier to not know that 1 out of every 2,000 UK residents was carrying a disease that destroys the brain and for which there is no treatment. The UK consists of 65.4 million people. Statistically that means that nearly 33 thousand British residents are subject to developing “variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease” caused by the prions associated with mad cow disease. The disease takes decades to develop. As the mad cow scare occurred about 30 years ago, we shall probably see the effects of this disease in the next couple of decades.
Another issue, raised by Dr. Ponsford in her work, is the impact that this will have upon the plasma industry which already experiences shortages. The FDA regulates screening of blood donors to reduce threats of blood-borne disease. Consequently, I am unable to contribute to plasma banks as I spent too much time in England, even though I was a vegan.
However, customs, not regulations, explain why blood donors are not paid for their donations. The FDA only requires that blood from paid contributors be labeled as such. Much of the plasma contributions, on the other hand, comes from paid donors. This does not require special labeling. Plasma is processed and viruses are removed or killed through the process. The prions that cause variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are able to be removed.
An effective screening tool is just now being developed. As blood screening for prions becomes available and is applied to plasma and blood donations, supplies of both will fall.
Here are some statistics to put this into perspective. A market report on the global blood industry cited 4.1% annual growth and projected the 2017 blood products market to reach $28.8 billion. This could be compared to the automotive coatings market or the home theater market in size. In the last five years, blood transfusions fell from about 15 million to 11 million units (- 27.7%). Demand for plasma has increased. It is expected to continue to grow annually by 6%.
My good deeds of trying to stay professionally connected and to help as a discussant at a conference have had poor effects. I know now that a disease that I thought we had controlled is likely to soon erupt, there is no cure, and even detection is still a work in progress. A new health crisis is looming and we may be enjoying the calm before the storm as this defect in our bodies develops until the disease manifests itself. The crisis will be centered in the UK, but exposure is global. I also now know that if the FDA acts on the information now present regarding prions and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, that this is going to negatively impact the blood industry and reduce supplies, which poses another risk to our healthcare.
No wonder Thomas Carlyle called Economics a “dismal science.” Look where one regional conference in Economics took me. On the other hand, these are challenges that must be prepared for, and it was an Economics conference that helped to educate me – as well as you the reader – on this issue.