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BAY AREA (KRON) -- The illness that afflicts cattle with so-called mad cow disease is one of the most devastating known to man. But you don't have to eat a diseased cow to die from it.
One Bay Area family has experienced the devastating impact that one form of the disease can inflict.
52-year-old Wendy Begley seemed to be in good health. She was a mother and grandmother. She worked full time. But then she started experiencing problems with her vision and back.
Her back pain got worse as did her eyesight. Medications failed to help. Within a few months, Wendy was unable to work.
Wendy's daughter, Julie Taylor said that her mom saw an optometrist, an opthalmologist, a pain specialist and orthopedic doctors to figure out what was causing the separate health problems.
Then dementia set in. Wendy became confused and paranoid. Eventually, she was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or CJD. It's a rare, degenerative, fatal disease of the brain.
"All the symptoms she had were classic CJD symptoms: unexplained pain, insomnia, dementia," described Julie.
"Wendy had an unusual form, a rare form of the sporadic disease," said Dr. Michael Geschwind, CJD expert at University of California at San Francisco .
The sporadic CJD is the most common form of the disease. But no one knows what causes this form of mad cow disease.
Dr. Geschwind explained, "It's not from eating meat. It's not from any contact with anyone. There are no known risks from being in any kind of profession."
The human form of mad cow disease is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
In a way, it's a variation of what Wendy Begley had. It's equally devastating, equally deadly. The only difference is that we know what causes the variant form of the disease: eating infected beef.
Thus, even a single case of mad cow disease here in the U.S. raises such fears. It means more people could potentially be at risk of the kind of swift, devastating disease that killed Wendy Begley.
"You could get something like this and in 8 months, [go] from being a mother and a friend and someone who goes to work and a grandmother, to [a] shell of a person," explained Julie.
Wendy Begley's family may never know what caused her CJD. They say by speaking out, they simply hope to put a human face on a still mysterious and always deadly disease.
Dr. Geschwind will be giving a public lecture on mad cow disease at UCSF on February 11. For more information, call 415-476-3438 or go to http://lifelonglearning.ucsf.edu/
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