Kuru, this terrible disease caused by cannibalism

A person with kuru sits in the front row between two people © D. Carleton Gajdusek. / Creative Commons

In many human communities, culture, traditions and beliefs are foundations that disregard dangers that are sometimes very obvious, sometimes more subtle. In either case, the danger is real and sometimes deadly. This is the case of kuru, a disease caused by cannibalism.

A frightening disease

As far as human beings are concerned, there is a long list of diseases that can kill them. These diseases can be caused by abnormalities in the body and others by bacteria and viruses that come from outside. Food is one of the most common sources of bacteria and viruses. It is for this reason that it is often not recommended to consume raw meat, because meat can easily contain dangerous bacteria such as colibacillus, salmonella and listeria.

If eating raw meat from different animals can be very dangerous, eating raw human meat is even more so. the cannibalism is a dark part of humanity that cannot be ignored. If some ended up practicing it because they had no other choice, others did it for pleasure, and still others to follow barbaric ancestral customs. This was particularly the case of Fore people of New Guinea who consumed the bodies of his deceased during mortuary rites.

According to the beliefs of this people, this allowed them to soak up the physical and spiritual strength of the deceased. If nothing is less certain on this side, what is certain is that this practice is at the origin of the which one, a rare infectious disease that affects the nervous system. But unlike most infections, kuru was not caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, but by prions, infectious proteins. These prions attack in particular the brainsoftening it until it becomes spongy.

Which one
Young child victim of kuru. He is unable to stand on his own © Liberski PP / Wikimedia Commons

An infectious disease caused by proteins

The disease causes neurodegenerative symptoms including tremors, coordination problems, difficulty walking and feeding, and dementia. Kuru is incurable and those infected eventually fall into a coma and then die 6 to 12 months after the onset of symptoms. This disease was first cited in official reports by Australian officers patrolling the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea in the early 1950s.

The link between the disease and the mortuary practices of the Fore people was discovered thanks to the efforts of the American doctor Daniel Carleton Gajdusek. In his research, he discovered in particular that the epidemic of kuru among the Fore probably started when a villager developed the disease of Creutzfeldt-Jakob and died. When the villagers ate the brain, they contracted the disease and then passed it on to other villagers. When this practice ceased in the early 1960s, the disease virtually disappeared. Either way, kuru remains a very interesting topic for researchers studying neurodegenerative diseases.

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