Le casse-tête du prion

ZURICH – Le déclaration de la maladie de la vache folle au Royaume Uni, qui a finalement conduit à l'abattage de 3,7 millions de vaches et a gravement mis à mal l'industrie bovine britannique, a commencé insidieusement. En 1986, une vache du Royaume-Uni a développé une maladie inconnue. L'année suivante, les tests ont révélé que le cerveau avait été érodé par une myriade de petites vacuoles, produisant l'aspect spongieux qui a inspiré le nom scientifique de la maladie : encéphalopathie spongiforme bovine. En quelques mois, des cas ont commencé à apparaître dans tout le pays.

Une maladie similaire, appelée la tremblante du mouton, était commune chez les ovins, mais n'avait pas déjà été diagnostiquée chez la vache. Et une maladie presque identique, invariablement mortelle, le kuru, avait ravagé les peuples autochtones de Papouasie Nouvelle-Guinée pendant tout le XXeme siècle. Le kuru et la tremblante du mouton sont des maladies infectieuses.

Le kuru se transmettait à l'occasion de rituels de cannibalisme courants en Papouasie Nouvelle-Guinée jusqu'en 1950. De même au Royaume-Uni et ailleurs, des bovins sains ont été nourris avec de la viande et de la farine d'os de bovins infectés. L'épizootie (épidémie animale) qui en a résulté a affecté plus de 280 000 vaches. À son apogée en 1992, la maladie de la vache folle touchait près de 1 000 têtes de bétail par semaine.

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