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Kuru

Kuru is a rare and fatal brain disorder that has now mostly disappeared. The disease first appeared in New Guinea around the early 1900s. By the 1950s, it was determined that the disease was limited to an area of New Guinea called South Fore. At first scientists postulated that the disease was a genetic disorder since it seemed to occur only within families. Later communications asserted that Kuru was caused by a slow virus. It wasn’t until the 1990s, after prion diseases were identified and defined, that researchers determined the exact nature of Kuru. The particular group, the Fore tribe, where Kuru occurred at epidemic levels, practiced a ritual act of mortuary cannibalism. The Fore cooked and ate their dead relatives. Since the women in the tribe were the prime participants in the rite, they were the vast majority of victims. Children and the elderly were also known to be fed the brain and parts of organs of the deceased relative. Adult males normally did not take part in the ritual and consequently were rarely infected. Strong discouragement of cannibalism by the New Guinea government has resulted in almost total eradication of the disease. However, Kuru has a long incubation period so that rare cases still appear.