A look at the oddest disease in the world and its even stranger medical cause.
A strange disease was growing among the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea. People began to lose their coordination. They walked an unsteady gait. They had tremors. They suffered severe headaches and joint pain. They lost their appetite and would waste away to nothing. They had severe mood swings, sometimes depressed or angry, and a short time later would have a bout of eerie laughter. It was this spooky and disturbing laughter, even amid deteriorating physical conditions that prompted the Fore people to call this bizarre new malady, Kuru, which in English roughly translated as The Laughing Sickness. Most tribes people thought the sufferers were mentally ill. To these uneducated people that rarely had contact with the outside world, that meant one thing- their friends and loved ones were being cursed.
As more and more member of the Fore tribe died, it came to the attention of prominent investigators. This was 1957 and in the next five years about 1000 people died from Kuru. World wide it was even a blip in the statistics but in Papua New Guinea it was a full blown epidemic. After much research it was discovered those afflicted were suffering from a disease we would most closely associate with Mad Cow Disease, or Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, today. But Mad Cow is transmitted from eating infected brain and spinal tissue. What agent caused Kuru in the Fore victims? The answer was human brain tissue, or more specifically, the ingesting of human brain tissue. The Fore tribe were cannibals.
They weren’t, for the most part, what we have come to think of as cannibals in Western culture. They didn’t contract the disease from so-called headhunting. They became afflicted with Kuru from their bizarre funeral customs.
Once a Fore person died, they were dismembered by the deceased person’s maternal family. Women would slice off hands and feet, strip muscle from the bone and remove the brain and other internal organs. According to Shirley Lindenbaum, one of the earliest Kuru researchers, the flesh of the victims of this strange disease was highly prized as food since the meat had fat layers resembling pork.
Among the Fore, rates of Kuru were not evenly distributed. Women had a much greater chance of transmission of the disease than men. This was because women usually ate morsels from the brain tissue and men did not. There are varying accounts of whether this was because men took choice cuts of meat and women were stuck with consuming organ meat or because women prepared the food and ate the brain as a delicacy. Since women also had contact with blood and tissues when they were doing the food preparation they also faced risks of opportunistic infections from open sores or cuts.
A large scale campaign of educating the Fore people of Papua New Guinea as to the cause of this weird disease successfully eradicated it, along with a crackdown by Australian officials (Papua New Guinea was under Australian control at the time) on the unusual custom of eating of the dead. Due to the long incubation period of the disease, it takes years after the initial infection to display symptoms. Although it took a long time for every case of the fatal disease to run its course, it is now thought to be a completely extinct disease.