Sixty years ago, doctors realised that a devastating disease called Kuru was killing one in ten people – mainly women and children – in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Kuru began with headaches, aching limbs and joint pains. Sufferers then became increasingly unsteady when standing or walking. Most clawed their toes to remain standing, which became Kuru's hallmark. Eventually, sufferers could not sit unsupported. Kuru was invariably, and often rapidly, fatal.1, 2
Autopsies revealed a pattern of brain degeneration reminiscent of scrapie, a neurological disease affecting sheep and goats, first recognised more than 200 years before.1,2 Eventually, researchers traced Kuru to the tribe's tradition of eating their 'dead relatives as a mark of respect and mourning'.1
The cause remained a mystery until the early 1980s, when researchers established that an abnormally folded protein – called a 'proteinaceous infectious' (prion) agent – caused Kuru, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) and scrapie.2 Indeed, Kuru – which seems to have emerged during the 1920s – probably began after people cannibalised a relative with sporadic CJD.1
Please login or register to read the rest of the article and to have access to downloads and comments.