It is clear that the prion strain causing bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle has infected human beings, manifesting itself as a novel human prion disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CjD). Studies of the incubation periods seen in previous epidemics of human prion disease and of the effect of transmission barriers limiting spread of these diseases between species, suggest that the early variant CJD cases may have been exposed during the preclinical phase of the BSE epidemic. It must therefore be considered that many cases may follow from later exposure in an epidemic that would be expected to evolve over decades. Since the number of people currently incubating this disease is unknown, there are concerns that prions might be transmitted iatrogenically via blood transfusion, tissue donation, and, since prions resist routine sterilisation, contamination of surgical instruments. Such risks remain unquantified. Although variant CJD can be diagnosed during life by tonsil biopsy, a prion-specific blood test is needed to assess and manage this potential threat to public health. The theoretical possibility that BSE prions might have transferred to other species and continue to present a risk to human health cannot be excluded at present.