The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) yesterday defended its decision not to publicize a case of suspected death from mad cow disease by saying that the cause of death had not been confirmed.
Late on Wednesday, the CDC responded to media reports that a 36-year-old Taiwanese man who spent eight years in the UK died in May from what appeared to be mad cow disease.
The man was in the UK from 1978 to 1986. In 2008, he began to develop symptoms resembling that of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD) such as memory loss and hypersomnia, and was reported as a suspected CJD case in March last year, the CDC said. However, the man’s family refused to provide tissue for testing or to give permission for an autopsy, making it difficult to confirm the cause of death.
Based on his symptoms and his MRI and EEG records, a medical team has determined this was “extremely likely” to be a CJD case.
However, the announcement came only after media outlets had already broken the news. The health authorities were heavily criticized for delaying reporting a serious infectious disease.
The Consumers’ Foundation, which has opposed imports of US beef parts that are at risk of spreading mad cow disease, criticized the CDC, saying it told bold-faced lies by saying there had been no cases of CJD from 1997 to May 29.
The foundation accused the CDC of covering up the information even though it was fully aware of the case to prevent hindrances to importing US beef, which the foundation called “malfeasance to an extreme.”
A trade agreement on US beef imports signed in October last year was widely criticized by health professionals and consumer groups, who said at the time that Taiwan had no facilities to deal with a possible outbreak of the disease. The legislature in January barred US ground beef, beef offal and other beef parts such as skulls, eyes and intestines from entering the market.
“The toxin has an incubation period of as long as seven years, so without symptoms or signs of the disease, it is very difficult to prevent and there is no cure for the disease,” Chen Sheng-shun (陳勝順), vice president of the Chang Gung Memorial Hospital Kaohsiung Branch, said yesterday.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers also accused the Department of Health of failing to make public the case despite reportedly having known of it since last year.
Citing information apparently acquired from the government, DPP Legislator Kuan Bi-ling (管碧玲) said the victim began receiving treatment at a hospital during the second half of 2008. By March last year, she said, it was almost certain that the victim had acquired some form of mad cow disease.
“The hospital alerted the CDC shortly after, but the government still made no effort to tell the public,” Kuan said.
She suggested the lack of disclosure was because of sensitive talks over the importation of certain kinds of US beef more susceptible to carrying the disease at the time, alleging then-National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起) signed the beef-import deal with the US despite the case.
CDC Director-General Chang Feng-yee (張峰義) denied covering up the incident and said that because the family of the victim refused to allow an autopsy, there is no way to confirm that the man died of mad cow disease.
Chang said it was standard protocol in Taiwan and many other countries to publicize only confirmed cases and not suspected cases.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Kuo Su-chun (郭素春) also shrugged off the DPP’s criticism of the government’s beef import policy, saying the DPP was simply taking every opportunity to attack the KMT.
At a separate setting yesterday, Department of Health Minister Yaung Chih-liang (楊志良) said “the person then in charge of [the DOH]” was the one who decided not to disclose the case, referring to Yeh Ching-chuan (葉金川), who resigned in August last year to run for Hualien county commissioner.
Yeh probably decided not to make the case known to the public because he thought the case was not of domestic origin, the minister said.
“I respected the decision, but personally I have different opinions,” Yaung said, adding that he was not aware of the case until Wednesday.
The government might have been concerned that a mad cow case at that time might lead to greater opposition to relaxing restrictions on imports of US beef, but the government was duty bound to disclose information on diseases, Yaung said.
When asked why the case was not passed on to him when he succeeded Yeh, Yaung said that Yeh did not have enough time during the transition because he “left in a hurry for the election.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY FLORA WANG
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