people of Papua New Guinea, until relatively recently, practiced transumption â€” eating deceased relatives. It is this isolated group that demonstrated the very serious ramifications of eating another humanâ€™s brain.
Kuru is a unanimously fatal, transmissible spongiform encephalopathy; it is a prion-based disease similar to BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), which is also known as mad cow disease.
Prion diseases are associated with the accumulation of an abnormal glycoprotein known as prion protein (PrP) in the brain. PrP occurs naturally, particularly in the nervous system. Its functions in health are not yet fully understood. However, PrP is known to play a role in a number of diseases, including Alzheimerâ€™s disease.
The Fore people are the only population who have experienced a documented epidemic of kuru and, at its peak in the 1950s, it was the leading cause of death in women among the Fore and their nearest neighbors.
The word â€śkuruâ€ť comes from the Fore language and means â€śto shake.â€ť Kuru is also known as â€ślaughing sicknessâ€ť because of the pathologic bursts of laughter that patients would display.
The first report of kuru to reach Western ears came from Australian administrators who were exploring the area:
â€śThe first sign of impending death is a general debility which is followed by general weakness and inability to stand. The victim retires to her house. She is able to take a little nourishment but suffers from violent shivering. The next stage is that the victim lies down in the house and cannot take nourishment, and death eventually ensues.â€ť
W. T. Brown
At its peak, 2 percent of all deaths in the Fore villages were due to kuru. The disease predominantly struck down females and children; in fact, some villages became almost entirely devoid of women.
This gender difference in the disease appears to have occurred for a couple of reasons. Fore men believed that, during times of conflict, consuming human flesh weakened them, so women and children more commonly ate the deceased.
Also, it was predominantly the women and children who were responsible for cleaning the bodies, leaving them at an increased risk of infection via any open wounds