The rare brain disorder that has struck her and other young Britons since 1993 - a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD - is not only fatal, it has also triggered the greatest public-health scare in recent British history. On March 20, 1996 the government admitted, after many denials dating back to 1990, that the illness may come from eating meat from diseased cows - namely those with so-called mad cow disease, a close relative of CJD.
Experts say American consumers are not in danger of contracting the disease, since the U.S. stopped importing British beef in 1989. (As a precaution 113 cattle imported before 1989 are being destroyed.) But in Britain, a country that prides itself on its hearty beef roasts, there was public panic. Restaurants like McDonald's immediately switched to imported Dutch beef for their burgers. Roast beef disappeared from school and hospital menus, while government scientists, bowing to pressure from European trading partners, began drafting drastic plans to kill as many as 4.6 million cows by 2002 to guarantee the safety of the food supply. Still, many U.K. citizens are angrily accusing officials of covering up a medical risk to protect the powerful $6 billion-a-year beef industry. Said Leeds University microbiologist Richard Lacey: "The government has been deliberately risking the health of the population."
Certainly the outcry comes too late for Vicky Rimmer, who could no longer move, swallow or see. But for Beryl, who has publicly battled the slow-moving government for three years to find the root of her granddaughter's illness, there is a sense of hard-won victory. Vicky, born in North Wales 20 years ago, was raised by Beryl, a former clerical worker, and her late husband, trucking contractor Glyn Rimmer, when their only daughter, Helen, left home four months after having Vicky at age 18. Vicky, an aspiring artist and model, was "animal-mad," her grandmother says, spending every weekend working at a kennel and lavishing attention on her springer spaniel Sophie. "She would have any animal if I would let her," says Beryl.
When the teenager first complained of neck and arm pains, her doctor in Deeside couldn't find anything unusual. "There's nothing wrong," he told Beryl. "Send her to school." Yet Vicky's forgetfulness persisted, and she began to get thinner and weaker. Finally, after nearly falling off a ride during a class trip to Alton Towers theme park in England, she checked into the hospital in Wrexham, Wales, for tests.
That same week, Vicky's grandfather Glyn died at 53 from a heart attack after showing symptoms strikingly similar to his granddaughter's. "My husband was a big guy of 252 pounds and lost weight down to 154," says Beryl. "He started lighting four cigarettes at a time and put on his [sweater] back to front. This was a guy who had his own business." Beryl is convinced his death was caused by CJD.
By late August 1993, when Vicky was undergoing more tests at Walton Hospital in Liverpool, she too was rapidly losing weight, dipping to 84 pounds. One day, when Beryl was feeding her yogurt, she realized Vicky was no longer swallowing. Her body began jerking violently, and she went into a coma. It took a government scientist from Scotland three weeks to finally deliver a firm diagnosis: fatal spongiform encephalopathy. "I drove home that night and called my doctor," Beryl says. "There was a deadly silence [when] I asked if he had heard of it, and he said, 'Of course I've heard of it. It's mad cow disease.'"
With no hope of recovery, Vicky was moved to Deeside Community Hospital so her grandmother could visit daily. Since medical bills forced Beryl to sell the family home last year, she has lived in nearby Heswall in a house loaned by a sympathetic friend. Unlike the other young people diagnosed with CJD, who have died quickly, Vicky has gained weight through artificial feeding and could live for years, doctors say. For Beryl, there is bitter satisfaction in her granddaughter's stubborn survival. "It's like Vicky is hanging on to say, 'Prove it to them, Mum,'" she says. "They just thought she would go away."
Tragic Vicky Rimmer, 20, died in hospital on Friday, November 21, 1997.
She fell sick in 1993 and had lain in a deep coma for more than four years. Her grandmother Beryl Rimmer, of Connah's Quay, North Wales, was at her bedside at Deeside Community Hospital in North Wales when she died.
Vicky was the first teenager to be diagnosed as suffering from suspected CJD - Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease. She loved hamburgers and her family is convinced she contracted CJD by eating contaminated beef.