Kuru is a fatal human disease caused by ritualistic cannibalism formerly practiced by the Fore people, in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Kuru is a member of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) neurological disease family, which also includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) in cattle, scrapie in sheep, and the different forms of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) in humans. Besides cannibalism, kuru can also be transmitted via contact with open sores.
The Fore word "kuru" means "shiver"; kuru is also called "trembling" or "laughing disease," due to infected people's behavior. Similar to other TSE diseases, kuru symptoms include convulsions, unsteady gait, personality changes, slurred speech, an increasing loss of muscle control, and eventually entering a comatose state. The disease has a long incubation period of up to several decades; most kuru victims die 6 to 12 months after the first symptoms appear.
Medical and anthropological researchers gained a basic understanding of kuru in the 1950s and 1960s, by realizing a few important links. One link was the similarity between kuru victims' symptoms and "spongy" brain appearance in post-mortem examinations, and the symptoms and "spongy" brains of scrapie-infected sheep and CJD-infected humans. Another link was between the different roles adult men and women and children played in Fore communities; kuru was prevalent among women and children, but not men.
As detailed in the book Mad Cow USA:
- Outside of marriage, [Fore] men and women lived largely separate lives. ... Women raised pigs, but the men ate the better meat, leaving the entrails for women and children, who supplemented their diet with vegetables, frogs, insects or rats. They were also responsible for preparing bodies for burial, and although eating of the dead was a rite of respect, love and mourning, simply hunger also seemed to play a role. ... Men rarely joined in the feast, and when they did, they ate the good parts, leaving the women with the brains and other internal organs.
In 1976, Dr. D. Carlton Gajdusek shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases," for his role in elucidating the cause and route of transmission of kuru. During the award ceremony, Professor Erling Norrby said:
- The Karolinska Institute has not awarded the Nobel prize for this year to Gajdusek for his demonstration of the danger of cannibalism. The importance of his discovery of the origin of the kuru disease lies in the identification of a new class of human diseases caused by unique infectious agents. The fact that kuru, which lacks the classic signs of infections, still is caused by a contagious agent implies that we must investigate whether certain other diseases may arise in a similar way. An unusual form of presenile dementia of wide dissemination has also been shown by Gajdusek to be caused by an infectious agent.
- Mad cow disease - contains list of links to TSE/ Kuru-related entries