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Tue Jan 20, 2015, 01:34 AM


The Last Laughing Death

After 55 years, the final patrol for cases of the mysterious ‘laughing death’ in remote Papua New Guinea has returned from the highlands. From this pursuit came Nobel-winning science, clues to ‘mad cow’ and insights into Alzheimer’s disease.

t’s 50 years since Michael Alpers, a 28-year-old medical graduate from Adelaide with a restless spirit and an urge “to do health in a different kind of way”, hiked into the Papua New Guinea highlands looking for the crucible of a devastating disease epidemic — and stumbled into the crater of an uncharted volcano.

While he smartly sidestepped the sulphuric grumblings of Mount Yelia, young Dr Alpers never really made it back from that trek, succumbing en route to a mystery, a mission, and a culture. This month the now-venerable professor’s long expedition reaches its conclusion: The last of the corps of local foot-soldiers he trained over decades to track down and document cases of kuru — the name the afflicted Fore people gave to the tremors signalling inevitable and terrible death — are just winding up their final routine surveillance patrols through the villages where the disease once raged.

Today’s kuru reporters will emerge from their last monthly trek through the mountains and negotiate the rough track north to the provincial capital of Goroka — a four-hour trip, if the route has not washed away in the latest downpour. When they have submitted their final reports to the PNG Institute of Medical Research and collected their last pay cheques, the file will be closed on an epic continuous surveillance effort which began when the first documented reports of the disease emerged in 1957. Along the way, its foot soldiers have navigated some of the most arduous geographical, cultural and humanitarian landscapes imaginable.

Several of the surveyors are second-generation kuru sleuths and bush medics, heirs to the stories and skills their fathers acquired in the 1960s when they accompanied Alpers and other pioneering investigators during the height of the kuru scourge. Then the mysterious disease was killing up to 200 people a year — mostly women and children — in the Purosa Valley, in the remote Eastern Highlands. It very nearly wiped out the Fore. Locals blamed powerful ritual sorcery for the curse; intrigued medical scientists postulated a genetic cause, or maybe an environmental factor; and patrol officers installed by the Australian administration suspected the Fore tradition of eating their dead — an outlawed practice that had largely ended by 1960. They would all, to varying degrees, turn out to have part of the story.


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ND-Dem Jan 2015 OP
pansypoo53219 Jan 2015 #1

Response to ND-Dem (Original post)

Tue Jan 20, 2015, 04:50 AM

1. interesting. i did a high school paper on cannibalism. i remember so much of it still. i remember

the word sublimation. either the eating of enemies or family.

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