Laughing to Death

Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, in Oceana.  It has a population of roughly six and a half million and is the home to hundreds of different ethinc groups and, with over 800 recognized languages, leads the world in that category. One of the groups indigenous to Papua New Guinea is the Fore (pronounce “for-ay”), a 20,000 person-strong people who, before the 1950s, were almost entirely insular.  And soon after the Fore began having contact with the outside world, they began to die in extraordinary numbers.  But unlike other cases where outsiders bring with them diseases or pathogens which the previously isolated people cannot resist, in this case, the Fore were killing themselves.

The Fore people had, unfortunately, discovered the disease “kuru” — a disease which, much like the loosely related mad cow disease — is a progressive disease which attacks and destroys the brain and nervous system. While its initial cause is unknown, we now believe that it is spread via cannibalism — a custom then common among the Fore but now forbidden.  After the death of someone else in the community, the surviving kin would dismember the deceased’s body and harvest whatever fat was left on the corpse, which was seen as particularly “good” as it resembled pork.  Other organs — including the deceased’s brain — were also eaten.  Altogether, these practices are the most likely reason kuru — a disease which the Fore call “the laughing death” — spread throughout the Fore people, killing roughly 1,000 of them (at the time, as much as 10% of their total population) in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Given the grisly details as to the transmission of kuru, it may seem odd that the Fore adopted “the laughing death” as a moniker for the affliction. For that, one needs to look to the symptoms.  First, the victim begins to noticeably lose control over some motor function, including slurred speech. Then, kuru robs its victim of ambulation and, as a double whammy, causes a wave of depression to strike.  But — as an odd, sinister twist — kuru then does something to its victim’s brain to make the inexplicable funny, for when those afflicted with kuru hit this second stage, they also laugh without cause, explanation, or even recollection of such laughter.  This laughing part only subsides when the third, brief phase strikes, one marked by a total loss of muscle control, massive susceptibility to infection, the inability to eat, and as a result, death. There is no cure.

And amazingly, kuru is still around. While kuru numbers declined rapidly after the Fore stopped their cannibalism tradition, it nonetheless lingers due to an extraordinarily long incubation period.  While most cases become symptomatic within a few years (if not much sooner), kuru has been known to sit idly within an infected person’s body for over fifty years.

Bonus fact: Another horrible way to go?  Fatal familial insomnia fits the bill. It is a genetic disorder which is extraordinarily rare — only forty families have ever been known to exhibit it.  The onset of symptoms begin after age 35 and typically not until around 50, when for about four months, the person has an ongoing bout of insomnia, leading to panic attacks and sometimes paranoia.  Then, for about five months, the patient sleeps even less, and begins to hallucinate.  Then, the person becomes entirely unable to sleep, spiralling into dementia and soon after, death.  From first symptoms to death may take as long as 18 months.

From the Archives: The Toxic Lady: A woman walks into an ER — and gets everyone sick.

RelatedA children’s book, written for grownups.  You’ll understand why it’s related to the bonus fact when you click the link.  (Warning: the title of the book contains the word “f**k,” with asterisks as shown.)

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