14 March 2002

S1M-2592 BSE and New Variant CJD

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): The final item of business is the members' business debate on motion S1M-2592, in the name of Kenneth Macintosh, on the continuing presence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the continuing presence of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in Scotland and the growing numbers of cases of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), including at least two cases in the parliamentary constituency of Eastwood; welcomes the setting up of a National Care Co-ordinator and CJD advice network, but acknowledges the devastating effects this disease can have on victims and their families and believes that the Scottish Executive should give its continuing support to those families affected by this terrible disease.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): First, I apologise on behalf of Shona Robison, who has had to leave to chair another meeting. She intends no discourtesy by her absence.

I assure Graeme and Malcolm, who are in the public gallery, that I am quite certain that all members of the Parliament will read this debate and take on board the messages from it, and that the debate and the Official Report of it will be referred to and read with interest well beyond the Scottish Parliament. I warmly congratulate Ken Macintosh on giving us the opportunity to throw a little further light into some of the dark corners of a horrendous disease.

I want to speak, relatively briefly, about two areas: agriculture, from which, essentially, the disease sprang; and, for slightly longer, about the very real human impact that such diseases have, not just on the sufferer, but on the families of sufferers.

Science let down agriculture, which let down the wider community. An unjustified enthusiasm for new ways of feeding our beasts and an unjustified optimism about the consequences of scientific advances led us into a trap. We can understand it to some extent: the related disease in sheep, scrapie—which is very much akin to BSE—had been with us for hundreds of years. Many people had eaten scrapie-infected animals without apparent consequence. I stress "apparent consequence"—our diagnostic skills were not as great a hundred years ago as they are now, and we cannot be certain. It is precisely that lack of certainty that lies at the root of much of the distress that the families of sufferers, or of people who fear that they may be sufferers, lies. We must exercise considerable caution in future.

We note that although the incidence of BSE in our herds is declining—which is good—the disease is not yet eliminated. We must also note that its incidence in France and other countries from which we import meat is rising. There is also considerable concern in many people's minds that the control of food imports is inadequate, and that much meat is bypassing the system. I would be interested to hear what can be done about that.

Between school and university, I worked for less than a year—although very usefully—in a psychiatric hospital. A number of the patients whom I, along with others, looked after suffered from similarly debilitating conditions that isolated them from their families and the reality of the world. There is nothing more moving than approaching a patient who is left with a single reflex. Placing a spoon on their bottom lip would cause their mouth to open to allow them to be fed.

There was nothing left: the body was simply a hulk that contained a physical manifestation of a previously loved and valued member of a family.

That is the experience of our friends in the gallery and of others elsewhere. It is an experience that we would in no circumstances wish to inflict on anyone else. We inflicted such an experience on these people accidentally, but it was avoidable. That is the hurt that families feel particularly strongly. If there is one thing that we can take out of what has happened, it is this. I hope that every sufferer has increased medical understanding of this condition and that measures to treat and prevent it will improve in future as a result. I have some confidence that that is the case. Our sympathy extends to all who will be affected in future and to those who have been affected in the past. Once again, I congratulate Ken Macintosh on giving us the opportunity to discuss this issue.


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