HL Deb 03 July 1996 vol 573 cc1441-4

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they have taken to protect public health following the Secretary of State for Health's two Statements on BSE on 20th March (HC Deb., col. 375) and 25th March (HC Deb., col. 710).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, before answering the noble Baroness's Question I should like to declare an interest. My husband manages a dairy and beef producing farm.

The Government have ensured that no meat from a bovine animal over 30 months old enters the human food chain; made the head, excluding the tongue, of all bovine animals over six months old a specified bovine material; prohibited mammalian meat and bone meal from being fed to livestock, fish and horses; and prohibited the use of mammalian meat in bonemeal and in fertilizers used on agricultural land. The Government have made available £4.5 million for research into BSE and CJD in addition to the £9 million already committed.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, as far as it goes. However, like so many answers and discussions of this issue since March, it seems to be concerned primarily with agricultural rather than public health issues. There has indeed been a remarkable silence from the Department of Health about the public health issues since the Statements were made in March. I am sure that the Minister will accept that that means that many consumers are still somewhat confused about the risks and potential risks that they may run. Does the Minister recall that in the Statement on 25th March, repeating the Statement from another place, she said: The situation needs to be kept under careful review so that additional significant information can be taken into account as soon as it becomes available".—[Official Report, 25/3/96: col. 1485.] Are the Government now saying that, despite the continuing work of SEAC and despite the fact that five new cases of the new type of CJD have been reported since March, there is nothing further on the public health issue that they wish to say?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right in that the Government are keeping the whole issue under close review. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State when he made his two Statements in the other place said that the Government would strengthen the national CJD surveillance unit in Edinburgh. We have done that. He said also that a programme of research would be announced. Professor John Swales, the director of research and development, made that announcement on 26th June. We regard public health as of paramount importance. The noble Baroness mentioned five new cases. There are not five new cases; there are five new suspected cases. There has been only one confirmed case since the reports in March. As she will know, the Government are publishing the reports of information that they receive from SEAC and from the national CJD surveillance unit on a monthly basis, and the figures that come out on a three-monthly basis.

Lord Winston

My Lords, one of the problems to which I drew attention in the debate on 20th March was that it is difficult to assess the situation because of the lack of clinical information. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us whether she feels that it might be possible to publish the clinical details of the cases assessed so far, so that we in turn can assess the medical risks involved with CJD in this new outbreak.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that we have a good record of publishing research through various means, not least through some of the learned journals. Indeed the Lancet in April published detailed information on the CJD cases. We are anxious that everyone should know what is going on. That is why the variant that has come to light was made public as soon as it was known. We are working with our European colleagues to ensure that that information is made known world-wide. The WHO is also co-operating with this country to ensure that all the knowledge that is gained is spread as widely as possible.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with a theory which was produced to me only last week by an American pathologist, that the only direct clinical proof of transfer from offal to humans resulting in CJD originated in a tribe of headhunters in New Guinea?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, we are aware of the disease, which is called kuru. Clearly, that is one of the issues which the expert committee set up by the Government to consider BSE and CJD (SEAC) has taken into account. It is keeping a close watch on the progress of the disease because we are anxious to know all about it and that it should be contained.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not the case that in this age of instant gratification everybody is looking for a simple cause of the disease and that it looks as though it is extremely complex? A great deal of scientific research and a lot of patience is needed and in the meantime we must take every precaution we can to prevent it spreading. Does the Minister agree that the understanding is that it is not infectious in the terms in which we know it—bacteriological or viral—and that we must simply wait and see what the scientists produce?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, yes, I agree entirely with the noble Countess. People always want the answer and in respect of something as complicated as this it will probably take anything up to 10 years to find some definitive research results.

Lord Hayhoe

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that since the Statements made in March no evidence of any kind has come forward which would in any way modify the views expressed that there was no real risk associated with eating beef or beef products and that that remains the position today?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. Professor Patterson, the chairman of the SEAC, has said that we believe that beef is safe in any common usage of the word and that anybody can eat beef or beef products and be safe. The situation has not changed.

The Earl of Macclesfield

My Lords, is the Minister aware of any evidence to suggest that CJD Mark II has not come from CJD Mark I in any normal way that a disease mutates?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, that is one aspect of the research that is being undertaken. There is a view from the national CJD surveillance unit that the two are similar, but whether there is a direct link is subject to research.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the evidence is that there is possibly—and some people say probably—a common cause? Although it would be correct to say that communication across them has not been proved, a similarity of origin seems to be generally accepted.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, both the variant and the original CJD are being studied by the surveillance unit. Therefore we look to it to see exactly where the links are, if there are any, and what the causes are once they are identified.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, on the basis of the Minister's answers, many of them encouraging, in particular her answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, would she say in retrospect that the public health alarm which was created after the Statements in March were somewhat exaggerated?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, yes, I believe that they certainly were exaggerated. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that this is a very rare condition. One in a million people in this country get it. Indeed, other countries which do not have BSE have the same level of incidence of CJD.