Mad cow disease: Could it be here?
Man's stubborn crusade attracts experts' notice
By CAROL CHRISTIAN
Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle
Like Paul Revere with e-mail, Terry Singeltary Sr. is on a mission to sound an alarm: Beware of mad cow disease.
As is true of many crusaders, however, his pleas often fall on deaf ears. Health officials here and abroad insist that bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- popularly known as mad cow disease, a fatal brain disorder that can make cows shake uncontrollably -- has been kept out of this country through surveillance of the cattle industry.
But since his mother's death in December 1997, the Galveston County man has been obsessed with possible connections between her deadly brain disorder, sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, and mad cow disease.
And after much persistence on his part, people are taking notice of this former machinist and high school dropout who jokes that he has a Ph.D. -- a Pool Hall Degree.
"They called me Chicken Little for four years," he said. "Now they're calling back, asking for more information."
For the past year he has been U.S. co-coordinator of an international monitoring group called CJD Watch. He regularly gets e-mail from scientists and journalists around the world.
Debora MacKenzie, a reporter for the British magazine New Scientist, described Singeltary, 47, as a "dogged unearther and tabulator of government documents."
Singeltary monitors "every word written about CJD/BSE," said Anita Manning of USA Today, also by e-mail.
"He's passionate, opinionated and not always tactful, although I like him because he's such a character and he is so transparent," Manning said. "He is what he appears to be."
Science and environment writer Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times in London said Singeltary has helped him track down families of people with CJD along with academic research papers.
"I strongly suspect he is right in thinking the USA has had BSE cases," Leake said by e-mail.
"The American government is making the same mistake as the British in putting the short-term commercial interests of its farmers before health considerations," he added.
"It should start formal and widespread testing of cattle plus compulsory autopsies for all human CJD victims at the state's expense. If there is BSE, then leaving it to spread will kill people -- and that would eventually destroy the industry, too."
Texas Department of Health epidemiologist Julie Rawlings said Singeltary's careful monitoring of the disease had proven useful.
"Terry has been helpful in providing contact information regarding suspect CJD cases so that the Health Department can initiate case investigations and learn more about CJD in Texas," she said.
Noting that the department cannot release records on individual patients, she added, "I think we learn more from him than he does from us."
Mad cow disease surfaced in England in 1986 and quickly became an epidemic. It since has been reported in 15 European countries, most recently Greece on July 2, and the Czech Republic on June 14. Two German-born cows tested positive for BSE in November.
Singeltary said he became convinced that BSE is here as he watched his mother, Barbara Poulter of Crystal Beach, dying of sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. The rare, fatal brain disease is sometimes accompanied by severe jerking.
"She would jerk so bad at times, it would take three of us to hold her down," Singeltary said. "They can call it whatever they want, but I know what I saw, and what she went through. `Sporadic' simply means they don't know."
Poulter, a retired telephone-company field worker, had a form of sporadic CJD -- Haidenhain variant -- that is even less common than the typical sporadic case. One of its first symptoms is loss of vision.
She started seeing brown spots in September 1997 and was virtually blind within two weeks. By the eighth week of the illness Poulter was bedridden, and in the 10th week she died. Before that she had been in good health.
In many countries and most U.S. states, physicians are not required to report CJD cases to health officials. Texas made the disease reportable in 1998. Through 2000, there were 17 probable or confirmed cases, according to the Texas Department of Health.
In mid-June, a case of sporadic CJD was confirmed through brain biopsy at Christus Spohn Hospital Shoreline in Corpus Christi, said Jane Bakos, hospital vice president. The patient has since died, the hospital reported.
CJD and mad cow disease leave their victims' brains full of holes like a sponge. Although not contagious, the illnesses are thought to be transmissible through prions, or nearly indestructible abnormal proteins.
Because the prion protein is not killed by standard sterilization, sporadic CJD can be spread by contaminated surgical instruments.
In March 1996, the British government announced the discovery of a new variant of CJD, most likely explained by exposure to bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Through June, 101 cases of new-variant CJD have been reported in the United Kingdom, three in France and one in Ireland. In contrast to sporadic CJD, the new variant usually affects younger patients and lasts longer.
No cases of new-variant CJD or BSE have been reported in the United States. No relationship has been shown between sporadic CJD and mad cow disease.
There is no indication that new-variant CJD can be spread through blood transfusions, but a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee voted in June to broaden the categories for excluding potential donors. The recommendations have not yet been approved by the FDA.
The American Red Cross has announced that on Sept. 17 it will begin rejecting potential blood donors who, since 1980, have spent at least three months in the United Kingdom or at least six months in any European country or combination of countries. Those who have received a blood transfusion in Britain since 1980 also will be rejected.
The primary collector of local blood donations is the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center, which will follow the FDA's guidelines, said Bill Teague, president and chief executive officer.
Singeltary said it's naive to think that U.S. prevention efforts have kept mad cow and new-variant CJD out of the United States.
"They haven't found it," he said, "because they haven't looked."
For one thing, he said, too few cows are tested for the disease. In the first six months of this year, the European Union tested more than 3.2 million cows, David Byrne of the European Commission said in a speech last month.
By contrast, it took the U.S. Department of Agriculture nearly 10 years to analyze about 13,000 cow brains, according to the department's Web site.
With more than 68 million cattle slaughtered since 1990 in the United States, according to the USDA, checking about 13,000 falls far short, Singeltary said.
Though not a scholar, Singeltary has collected voluminous material on mad cow and CJD. Disabled from a neck injury, Singeltary never used a computer until 1998. He now spends hours each day on the Internet while his wife, Bonnie Singeltary, runs a flower shop in their home in Bacliff, in north Galveston County.
His challenge to the CJD/BSE establishment is courageous and refreshing, said Dr. Lynette Dumble, former visiting professor of surgery at University of Texas Medical School at Houston and a former senior research fellow in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
"I certainly have no problem with Terry's ideas on BSE/CJD," said Dumble, who coordinates the Global Sisterhood Network, a computer service that posts media reports on developments affecting women. "His research skills are excellent, and he is abreast of each and every development in the field."
Among Singeltary's worries now, he said, are widespread violations of an August 1997 ban on feeding animal products to U.S. cattle. The FDA reported in January that hundreds of feed manufacturers were not complying with regulations designed to keep BSE out of this country.
(That same month, a Purina Mills feedlot near San Antonio told the FDA that a "very low level" of cow parts had been found in cattle feed. The company voluntarily removed 1,222 animals who had been fed the prohibited materials.)
He obtained copies of FDA letters to various feed mills that had been found in violation of the regulations and immediately sent them by e-mail to hundreds of people around the world.
Singeltary might not be so zealous in getting the word out if he weren't convinced that someone is covering up the truth.
"They used to say BSE would never transmit to humans," he said, "and it has. They lied about the feed ban being in place.
"I've lost faith in the whole process. I've discovered too many things."