Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Kuru Was No Laughing Matter

By Stephen Luntz

Michael Alpers’ work in Papua New Guinea helped to explain one of the strangest known diseases, and opened the way to understanding several related infections.

Read this article in Australasian Science Magazine (print only).

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

When Prof Michael Alpers went to the Fore territory of Papua New Guinea in 1961, the people were dying of an apparently inexplicable disease. Known as kuru, the neurological condition’s name comes from a local word meaning “to shake”. Sufferers became weak, started to shake and had uncontrollable bursts of laughter. It was always fatal.

Kuru’s cause was particularly obscure. Was it a genetic or an infectious disease? If infectious, what was the transmissive agent?

No sign of a bacterium or virus existed. The disease was clearly in decline, but this only added to the mystery.

If kuru was infectious it required an incubation period far longer than any then-known disease, indeed longer than was generally considered possible. A hint of the cause lay in the Fore people’s practice of eating the dead as a sign of respect. Adult men ate the choice cuts, while women and young children, the primary victims of kuru, consumed the organs.

Alpers had graduated in medicine from Adelaide University earlier that year. The department had done some work in New Guinea, then an Australian colony, and Alpers had developed an interest in the area. He’s unsure why, but says he “always wanted to be a medical researcher. My father was a country doctor, so the medical side isn’t too hard to explain, but I don’t know where the interest in research came from. I studied...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.