The Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control have given an update on the disease down in Austin, Minnesota. The Star Tribune nails down the idea that has been floating in my head since I first heard about this.
Pigs and humans are such biologically similar mammals that researchers are trying to find ways to use pig organs to replace diseased human organs. So it's not surprising that if the immune system creates cells to attack proteins from pig neural tissue, those immune cells might also attack human neural tissue as well, experts said.
If the body is attacking an influx of nervous tissue from pig brains, it isn't much of a leap for that same attack to be wrongly redirected to the body's own nervous tissue. Our bodies are very good at attacking invading infections, but unfortunately when that system turns back on the body things go badly. See lupus, MS and Chrohn's.
I don't think that we evolved to be able to deal with liquefied and aerosolized brains. Touch them, eat them yes; inhale them, no. So it doesn't surprise me that things might go wrong. I wonder who came up with the idea of using air to remove the brain anyhow? Bet they feel pretty bad right now.
The experts have decided upon a name for the cluster of symptoms, progressive inflammatory neuropathy or PIN for short. They looked at other large slaughter plants in the US and found two more that were using pressurized air to blow the brains out.
To date, no cases of PIN have been identified in association with workers at the Nebraska plant. However, several workers at the Indiana plant have been preliminarily identified with neurologic illnesses and similar histories of exposure to head-processing activities at that slaughterhouse. Further assessments of these patients, and additional measures to identify other workers with illness, are being conducted in Indiana. As a result of this investigation, all three plants have stopped using compressed air to extract brain material.
The health officials are also looking to talk to anyone who has worked at the Austin plant since the air pressure system was installed a decade ago. The problem is that the job has a high turn over rate, with many of the workers being immigrants. In December of 2006 a different meat packing plant in another small Minnesota town was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and took away hundreds of workers. So finding everyone that worked at the Austin plant over the past decade is impossible from the start. Which means there is a chance that there is someone out there who might never figure out why their limbs stop working and go weak.
Revere over at Effect Measure has a post about this too. Revere is a public health scientist and credits the medical specialist who was seeing several of the patients. A very good post from a blogger I really like.