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Kuru: The Cannibal’s Disease

Kuru is an incurable degenerative neurological disorder endemic to tribal regions of Papua New Guinea. It is a type of transmissible “spongiform encephalopathy”, caused by the consumption of a prion found in humans.

Kuru causes brain and nervous system changes similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Similar diseases appear in cows as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease”. The main risk factor for kuru is eating human brain tissue, which can contain the infectious particles.

The term “kuru” derives from the Fore word “kuria/guria” (“to shake”), referring to the body tremors that are a classic symptom of the disease; it is also known among the Fore as the “laughing sickness” due to the pathological bursts of laughter people would display when afflicted with the disease. It is now widely accepted that kuru was transmitted among members of the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea via funerary cannibalism. 

The symptoms of kuru are divided into three specific stages.

The first, ambulant stage, exhibits unsteady stance and gait, decreased muscle control, tremors, deterioration of speech, and dysarthria (slurred speech).

In the second, sedentary stage, the patient is incapable of walking without support and suffers ataxia (loss of muscle coordination) and severe tremors. Furthermore, the victim is emotionally unstable and depressed, yet has uncontrolled sporadic laughter. Interestingly, the tendon reflexes are still normal at this point.

In the final, terminal stage, the patient is incapable of sitting without support, suffers severe ataxia (no muscle coordination), is unable to speak, is incontinent (unable to restrain natural discharges/evacuations of urine or feces), has difficulty swallowing), is unresponsive to his or her surroundings, and acquires ulcerations (sores with pus and necrosis). An infected person usually dies between three months to two years after the first symptoms, often because of pneumonia or pressure sore infection.

So if you were to say, find yourself stranded with a group of strangers; food for thought… 😉

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