'Deadly Feast' -- a plague upon us?


"Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague," by Richard Rhodes. Simon & Schuster, 259 pages. $24.

Given the disease-of-the-month mentality of our society, it is hard not to be skeptical about any book with "Terrifying New Plague" in its subtitle. But Richard Rhodes is an experienced journalist and highly regarded science writer (his 1987 book "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award for non-fiction) with a hard-earned reputation to lose if readers decide he is just trying to sell a scare. He is not. This is a serious book about a serious threat.

In the mid-1950s an Australian public-health officer in highland New Guinea, Vincent Zigas, identified a new neurological disease, inevitably fatal, called kuru. This disease had some very unusual characteristics. It was only found among the members of a single tribe, the South Fore. It wasn't associated with a fever or inflammation, meaning it didn't act like a normal infection. And, an American doctor named Carleton Gajdusek eventually discovered, kuru was transmitted through cannibalism.

On April 25, 1985, an English veterinarian named Colin Whitaker went to look at a sick cow on a dairy farm in southern England. The cow was nervous and stumbling, and standard treatments did nothing to save the dying animal. Within a year the disease appeared in three other dairy herds. Kin to a sheep disease called "scrapie," the sickness was named bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. The tabloids called it "mad cow disease." In 1988 epidemiologists showed that BSE was transmitted through meat and bone meal supplements being fed to the cattle. Like kuru, mad cow disease was spread through cannibalism.

In May of 1993, a 15-year-old British girl named Victoria Rimmer came home from school exhausted. Over the next few weeks she began to fall, suffered agonizing pain in her arm and neck, and eventually fell into a coma. A brain biopsy revealed she had a spongiform encephalopathy that looked like a fatal neural condition called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CJD.

CJD, writes Rhodes, is uncommon but "not a rare disease - rabies is rarer." But CJD "is extremely rare in people under thirty." By the beginning of 1996 Vicky Rimmer and at least nine other young people in Britain had died from or were gravely ill with something like CJD.

Biopsies of the victims' brain tissue, however, showed a different kind of damage than that caused by CJD. When Carleton Gajdusek, who had won a Nobel Prize for his work on the New Guinea disease, looked at the evidence, he told Rhodes "It's kuru." On March 20, 1996, Britain's Secretary of State for Health announced that BSE, mad cow disease, had probably spread to humans through eating beef.

When kuru was discovered it was thought to be caused by a "slow virus," which, like HIV, could take years to make a victim sick. But viruses are strings of DNA and the scientists working on kuru couldn't find any DNA linked to the disease. Instead, the kuru/BSE/CJD disease or diseases seem to be transmitted by pieces of protein - "infectious amyloids" or "prions" - that cause cells to misfold one of the many proteins they normally produce.

Think of it as bad biochemical origami, crystallizing in the brains of its victims. Because they are just bits of protein, prions are not targeted by the body's immune system; nor are they destroyed by the procedures normally used to sterilize medical instruments or food. They can only be detected by the damage they cause, and they are transmitted by being eaten.

"Deadly Feasts" argues that BSE is established in the European food chain and that a wave of deaths from CJD has just begun. Although BSE has never been identified in our country (and the Department of Agriculture has prohibited the importation of British cattle since 1989), similar diseases have appeared sporadically in the United States. Given the history of AIDS, who could not fear such a blight?

Rhodes tells this story in masterly journalistic style. Report the facts and let the people you interview do the interpreting. Be convinced your story is important. Add a scary headline (something like "Deadly Feasts") and a great lead (Rhodes opens with a cannibal supper), and the readers will be yours. This dramatic account of a once obscure disease is going to turn a lot of red-blooded readers into vegetarians.

John R. Alden, an anthropologist, has been following the story of kuru since the 1970s, when a friend went to New Guinea to study the epidemiology of that strange affliction. He writes about anthropology for several publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Natural History Magazine.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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