Up until the 1930s, most of the world had no idea that there were people living in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Actually, it wasn’t until Australian gold prospectors surveying the era realized that there were millions living there. However, as more researchers began to investigate the area, they found something disturbing.
Among the Fore tribe, which consisted of 11,000 people, around 200 people a year had been dying of a mystery disease. They called the disease “kuru” which meant “shivering” or “trembling.”
First, they had trouble walking, losing motor control of their limbs. Then, they’d lose control of their emotions which is why it was also given the term “the laughing death.” Over the course of a year, they became almost fully nonfunctional.
From an anthropological perspective, this was a big problem; the Fore recognized that their tribe was on the brink of extinction, and they wanted to try and save themselves. But, what was causing all of these strange deaths?
It had to do with their funerals.
In these villages, when a person died, they would be cooked and consumed by the rest of the tribe as an act of love, respect, and grief; they found it much better for the body to be eaten by people than to be eaten by worms. The women of the tribe would remove the brain, mix it with greens, and cook it in tubes of bamboo.
At this point, researchers knew that this disease was coming from eating dead people. A group at the NIH injected infected human brains into chimpanzees and watched the same symptoms of kuru develop within a few months. The group won the Nobel Prize and named it “the slow virus.” Now, we know them as prions (see image to the left)–infectious, mis-folded proteins that had no genetic material, could survive being boiled, and wasn’t considered alive.
Although the Fore had stopped these practices, kuru still affected them for decades since it could take up to years for someone to show symptoms. The last person (that we know of) with kuru passed away in 2009. However, because prion diseases can have such long incubation periods, it’s not easy to monitor transmission. It could take years–even decades–before we know it’s eradicated for sure.
This is a really interesting example of how cultural practices can lead to the outbreak of new and strange diseases. Because the Fore people knew that their tribe was on the brink of extinction, they realized the importance of stopping traditional funeral practices in order to save their people and their culture. At the end of the day, it takes the cooperation of both medical professionals and the local tribes involved in order to strengthen public health outcomes.