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BACKGROUND: The agent that causes variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (variant CJD) is indistinguishable from the causative agent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The transmission route by which human beings are infected has not been established. One hypothesis is that cases of variant CJD have resulted from exposure to the BSE agent via rendering plants involved in the production of meat and bone meal, the main vehicle of the BSE epidemic. METHODS: We identified cases of variant CJD through the National CJD Surveillance Unit, and obtained lifetime residential histories of cases by interviewing a relative. The addresses of all rendering plants in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) in production in 1988 were available from a survey done in that year. We calculated the distance between each case's place of residence on Jan 1, 1988, and the nearest rendering plant from postcode data, and used data from the 1991 UK census to estimate the population living within various distances of rendering plants. We compared the observed number of cases of variant CJD within a particular distance of a rendering plant with the number expected if there is no association between residential proximity to a rendering plant and the risk of developing variant CJD. FINDINGS: Up to Aug 31, 1998, 26 cases of variant CJD with onset in the UK (Northern Ireland not included) had been identified. The observed and expected numbers of variant CJD cases living within a specified distance of any rendering plant up to 50 km were almost the same. Two plants in the county of Kent each had four cases within 50 km in 1988, significantly more cases than expected (plant A, 1.04 expected; plant B, 0.74 expected). Multiple significance tests were done, so some tests would be expected to appear significant by chance alone. Computer simulations suggested that the observation of four cases of variant CJD living in an area with a population of 1.5 million (the size of Kent) is not unexpected. INTERPRETATION: There is no evidence that people with variant CJD tended to live closer than the population as a whole to rendering plants in the 1980s. The reported cluster of variant CJD cases in Kent is most probably a chance finding.

Type

Journal article

Journal

Lancet

Publication Date

02/01/1999

Volume

353

Pages

18 - 21

Keywords

Abattoirs, Animals, Cattle, Cluster Analysis, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Syndrome, Environmental Exposure, Humans, Poisson Distribution, Population Surveillance, Prevalence, United Kingdom