10.5. BSE link with cannibals in Papua to be investigated
International News Electronic Telegraph Monday 7 April 1997
BSE link with cannibals in Papua to be investigated
By Richard Savill in Goroka, Papua New Guinea
ONE of Britain's leading experts on BSE and its human equivalent, CJD,plans to fly to Papua New Guinea soon to investigate possible links with a disease which has its roots in cannibalism.
More than 2,500 villagers in the Okapa region of the New Guinea
Highlands have died from the debilitating brain disease, kuru, which has
similar symptoms to those associated with mad cow disease.
Cannibalism was banned in the South Pacific nation during the Fifties
but a few people continue to fall victim to the disease which has a
remarkably long incubation period. Experts have linked kuru to the
former custom of eating relatives during funeral rites.
Michael Alpers, the director of the Papua New Guinea Institute of
Medical Research, who has been examining kuru since 1961 and has
lived among the mountain villagers, said the disease was very similar in
"superficial appearance" to BSE.
"Kuru is a most unpleasant, slow death," he said at his office in the
Highlands town of Goroka. "It attacks the central nervous system. The
patients stand with their feet wide apart. If they bring them together they
fall over. They walk in a staggering way, almost drunkenly."
According to Dr Alpers, a leading British researcher into BSE, Prof
John Collinge, of St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, is due to visit Papua
New Guinea in the next month or two. "He is interested in the disease
and the idea is that he will meet a patient in one of the villages," Dr
Alpers added. "He wants to further his knowledge of kuru for his own
"The agents of kuru, BSE, CJD and scrapie in sheep are essentially the
same. Kuru is clearly relevant to anything one would want to know
about BSE and CJD. If it were not for kuru we may not know that CJD
was transmissible. We might be totally puzzled by any possible link
between BSE and CJD. We have to be very cautious about making
connections but, historically, kuru is critical to understanding the whole
The custom of mortuary feasting, in which families would eat relatives
who died, ended more than 40 years ago, according to Dr Alpers.
"Everyone would gather around the body which would be laid out in
state. Everyone would mourn and then the body would be cut up and
the dead cooked in an earth oven. It was a mark of respect for death.
"Portions of the body would then be given to the large number of
relatives. The women and children would eat the brain and other
internal organs. The men had some taboos against eating human flesh.
When they did partake they ate meat and muscle."
Dr Alpers said that no one born after 1959 had contracted the disease
and most of the victims were women. "What we are seeing now is the
end result of a very long incubation period," he said.