LONDON, England (AP) — The British government reported on Wednesday a patient died of the human form of mad cow disease after a blood transfusion from an infected donor — the first time such a connection has been reported.

Health Secretary John Reid told Parliament it was not possible to determine whether the transfusion recipient contracted the fatal brain-wasting illness through the blood transfer or whether the two people were independently infected. He said, however, it was the first report supporting the idea that the disease might be transmitted through blood transfusions.

Experts have long suspected that the disease might be spread through blood transfusions and have put in place additional precautions should that prove true.

The transfusion reported Wednesday occurred in 1996, one year before Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) safeguards were applied to the blood supply in Britain, where nearly all variant CJD cases have developed. All blood products for use in operations in Britain are now imported from the United States, where there have been no reported cases of human mad cow disease.

The donor had shown no signs of variant CJD when giving blood in March 1996, but developed the disease three years later, dying the same year from the condition, Reid said.

The recipient of the blood transfusion died this autumn and a post mortem confirmed variant CJD.

“It is therefore possible that the disease was transmitted from donor to recipient by blood transfusion in circumstances where the blood of the donor was infectious, three years before the donor developed variant CJD, and where the recipient developed variant CJD after a 61/2-year incubation period,” Reid told lawmakers. “This is a possibility, not a proven causal connection.”

The link between the blood donor and the recipient was first reported to officials in the health department last week, at which time doctors had yet to confirm that the recipient had the disease.

“I was first alerted to the developments on Friday, December 12, and was briefed by the Chief Medical Officer on Monday and Tuesday this week,” Reid said.

Reid said 15 people in Britain have received blood donations from people who have gone on to develop variant CJD. All of them were being contacted by officials and offered counseling, he said.

There is no blood test to screen for variant CJD, which scientists believe comes from eating products from cows infected with a similar illness, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as BSE or mad cow disease.

Cattle were infected in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Britain after they were fed meat and bone meal from infected animals. Since then, cases have been reported in many other countries, from Europe to Asia. Experts believe the disease was spread through exports of infected animals and meat products.

The human form of mad cow disease so far has claimed 143 victims in Britain and 10 elsewhere.

Three cases of variant CJD — one each in Ireland, Canada and the United States — occurred in people who had lived in or visited Britain at the height of the BSE epidemic. The other seven — six in France and one in Italy — occurred in people who had not been to Britain.