Tuesday, May 06, 2008


The Logic of Illogic

Needless to say, I couldn't find any answers to the question of where the "94% of Koreans more genetically susceptible to mad cow disease" claim came from, so I did my own research, since not knowing such things bothers me. Here's the answer, in terms of where this flimsy set of ideas is coming from. The article on "kuru" on eMedicine.com, which was reprinted from WebMD.com, and was written by:

Paul A Janson, MD, Instructor, Tufts University School of Medicine; Director, EMT/RN Consultants; Consulting Staff, Department of Emergency Medicine, Lawrence General Hospital

Along with coauthors:

Rachel H Chung, MD, Consulting Staff, Department of Family Practice, North Clinic, North Memorial Hospital; Mary Buechler, MD, Per Diem Staff, Department of Emergency Medicine, Caritas Holy Family Medical Center; Stuart H Cohen, MD, Director of Infection Control and Epidemiology, Associate Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, University of California at Davis School of Medicine

Here's the excerpt of this article, last updated on October 15, 2005:

"Prions are thought to be both the infectious agent and the cause of spongiform encephalopathy in animals and humans. The prion is a naturally occurring protein (termed prion protein [PrP]) found in the CNS and elsewhere.

In the alpha-helical configuration, PrP usually is sensitive to protease degradation and is termed PrP-sen. Disease results when the PrP is reconfigured into the beta-sheet configuration, which is resistant to protease degradation. This configuration is termed PrP-res. The PrP-res proteins are resistant not only to protease degradation but also to radiation, heat, and most other processes that destroy proteins. Neither the transmissible agent nor the disease-producing agent contains any DNA or RNA. Because they are naturally occurring proteins, immunologic response to the infection is absent.

The prion of kuru is infectious orally and is capable of transmission to nonhuman primates by this route and by direct introduction into various tissues. Scrapie may be transmitted to sheep from pastures that have previously been grazed by scrapie-infected sheep and have remained unused for as many as 30 years, demonstrating the extreme resistance of prions to degradation. CJD also has been transmitted iatrogenically by transplanted tissue such as dura mater grafts. Potential transmission via the blood supply has been suggested but never demonstrated.

Prions are capable of replicating themselves in organisms; or, more correctly, prions are capable of changing the existing PrP-sen to PrP-res. This change takes place particularly in the CNS. Resistance to degradation is the probable source of disease because prions accumulate within the CNS, causing amyloid collections and resulting in neurologic symptoms and the spongiform appearance on pathologic examination. Hence, the term spongiform encephalopathy is applied to this group of diseases.

The name prion has only recently gained wide acceptance, replacing previously used terms such as slow virus, infectious proteins, infectious amyloids, and crystal protein. Mice that lack the gene responsible for PrP cannot be infected with the agent causing spongiform encephalopathy. The lack of this protein has no apparent effect, except an alteration in the circadian rhythm of these mice. They have a normal life span. For this reason, the PrP has been proposed to be a redundant protein.

The PRNP gene has recently been identified as altering the susceptibility to prion infection. The gene has a polymorphism at site 129 for either methionine or valine and has been noted as showing a strong increase in susceptibility to kuru if methionine is present on both genes (M/M). All cases of vCJD in the United Kingdom have occurred in people of the M/M genotype as well.

The pathologic similarity between the spongiform encephalopathies and other degenerative brain diseases, such as Alzheimer disease, is the subject of speculation at this point."

OK, now that's something I can work with. The problem is, it still doesn't lead us to the conclusion that Korea and Koreans are somehow more susceptible to getting mad cow disease, even if it is established that the M/M genotype is expressed in 94% of the Korean population and only 38% of the American population. [And where did these numbers come from?]

The main problem is still the same: preventing tainted meat from reaching the population. If tainted meat hit the shelves of American grocery stores, it doesn't mean only 38% of the population would get it, nor does it mean that 94% of the Korean population would get it.

Neither population would find such a figure acceptable. The fact remains that one has to be exposed to said tainted meat, and a single case of vCJV in the United States in 2003 doesn't establish American meat as any worse than say, E. coli infections in Korean beef, which actually HAVE killed people, and have killed many more people in Korea than any cases of "mad cow" in the US. If there's something more logical to crow about, it's E. coli infections that have forced mass recalls of American beef -- not mad cow disease.

In the end, this is about fear-mongering and existing anti-American sentiment. The question isn't supposed "susceptibility" but whether or not mad cow disease is in the meat of that country. I'm still waiting -- for the over one million Americans of Korean descent (myself included) who've been eating American beef since they were born, how many cases of mad cow disease were there? Was that single case back in 2003 with a Korean American?

Where's the logic, people? It's about the absence or presence of contaminated beef -- not genes.

Some people automatically say "you're just defending America because you're American." That's fucking stupid, if you read this blog (which takes aspects of US society to task every bit as much as I do for South Korea), and my main argument is that if you want to protest the KORUS FTA, do it.

The Korean beef industry wants to protect its market, Korean farmers don't want the FTA bringing in American-grown rice, Korean car manufacturers don't want Ford, Chrysler, and GM selling its cars without the tariffs that have kept them out by keeping their prices double those of domestic cars. Fine. That's all economics, interests, perfectly reasonable arguments, whichever side of them you fall on.

But this fear-mongering about the certainty of death if American beef imports begin again is illogical: even assuming a 94% distribution of the M/M genotype (versus a supposed 38% prevalence in the US) doesn't mean 94% of the Korean population is going to get mad cow disease. In the end, one still has to demonstrate that American beef is particularly dangerous vis a vis "mad cow disease" actually being present, which so far, hasn't been demonstrated. Otherwise, I would have stopped eating American beef a long time ago.

American or not, I'm not stupid enough to eat infected beef. So I would appreciate it if Koreans dropped that line of argument. If and when it is demonstrated that American beef is unsafe, I'll stop eating it. And so should Koreans struggle to keep it out. Until that day, I'll still be getting my occasional beef fix at the local Burger King.

And so will most Koreans, after this all blows over. Illogical and extreme gesticulations and much ado about nothing are usually followed by completely forgetting about the issue.

Because Koreans are just almost even more "mad" about "cow" than Americans, what with the allegiance to foreign fast food chains such as Burger King and McDonald's. I predict a slight drop in sales in both establishments right after American beef comes in, followed by complete amnesia and business-as-usual two weeks later.

Such is the way of things in Korea, and why this whole thing amounts to a whole bunch of silliness. If people were really so worried about their health, they wouldn't eat beef AT ALL, since my vegetarian friends, plus the American book Fast Food Nation, illustrates just how unhealthy the beef industry is in general. Yet, I'm a carnivore. Can't help it.

Alternatively, if Koreans were so concerned about random and inexplicable death, they would also wear their seat belts. But generally, not only don't they, all my friends outright refuse to buckle up in the rear seats.

Pass the steak, please.

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