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Maxime Schwartz

How the Cows Became Mad

Fear of the condition popularly known as “mad cow” disease has created a state of collective hysteria: some consumers are so afraid of contracting the disease that they have stopped eating beef; others haven’t stopped eating beef simply because they believe it is too late to do anything to prevent catching the illness.
This book examines the disease known as “spongiform encephalopathy”, based on its anatomical characteristics. It describes how it first appeared three centuries ago and how its successive variations were gradually identified: scrapie (a related disease in sheep), Creutzfeldt-Jacob, Kuru from New Guinea, growth hormone, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). It also looks into the question of species-jumping agents. Maxime Schwartz shows why it was so difficult to identify the disease, since the active agent was totally unknown. It was not a microbe, nor a virus, nor a retrovirus, but an infectious protein (which became known as a “prion”). The author addresses a wide audience and concludes his book with the reply to the question that is on everyone’s lips: Should we be afraid?

Maxime Schwartz teaches at the Institut Pasteur, in Paris.