Cannibals, Cows & The CJD Catastrophe

Cannibals, Cows & The CJD CatastropheI was browsing through my favourite second-hand bookshop today and I came across the following book: Cannibals, Cows and The CJD Catastrophe by Jennifer Cooke. The following is an excerpt of Cooke’s own description of her book:

From the jungles of Papua New Guinea in the 1950s, through Australian fertility clinics, to the butcher shops of Britain in the 1990s, a creeping epidemic has claimed the lives of thousands of men, women and children.

The Eastern Highlanders of PNG called it kuru – the shivering disease. In the West, we know it as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). To the world’s media, it is now notorious as “Mad cow” disease.

All three are among a group of rare human and animal diseases that induce neurological disaster – microscopic holes in the brain, sticky plaques of protein that prevent vital messages between nerve cells – and a plethora of symptoms including staggering, jerking, memory loss, personality change and dementia. Collectively, they are known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs. A more recent term, “prion” disease, to denote the apparent cause of these diseases by a “proteinaceous infectious particle” in the brain, is also widely used.

TSEs, or prion diseases, are not only infectious, they are also inheritable in a very small number of cases. They have no cure and no treatment and no reliable pre-mortem test, so absolute confirmation cannot be made until a post-mortem examination of thin slices of the brain under a microscope reveals massive damage in the form of spongy holes.

Well over 3,000 former cannibals from the Fore area of PNG’s mountainous Eastern Highlands succumbed to kuru after repeated feasts in which they ate dead relatives as a mourning rite. The women and children in particular ate the brains and smeared them on their bodies as a mark of respect. There is speculation that this practice may have led to kuru infection via either oral or intraocular routes when, for instance, mothers wiped tiny children’s eyes with their hands.

CJD and its related diseases incubate in humans for decades. Kuru cases are still emerging, despite the cessation of cannibalism in the late 1950s. The most recent case had an incubation period of well over 40 years.

The legacy of accidental CJD transmission will continue for years to come.


I will provide a little book review of my own focusing on CJD’s relationship with the Fore people of PNG once I get through this book . Fascinating stuff.

~ by Tavurvur on April 22, 2009.

One Response to “Cannibals, Cows & The CJD Catastrophe”

  1. Interesting…my ancestors on my mothers side were cannibals. Although it was due more to the fact that they were short of food and they were living on a small mountain in constant battle against outsiders.

    So the only cravings I have really these days is for KMC’s chilli wings…

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