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. It also revealed a little bit of cannibal hidden in us all. 

It’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.

Fore people recruited to “The Kuru Project” worked as translators, guides, cultural advisors, nurses, autopsy assistants, couriers, cooks, security guards, drivers, carriers and custodians of precious human tissue destined for research laboratories in Melbourne, Washington and London. They were instrumental in what is recognised as one of the greatest discoveries in biomedical sciences of the 20th century.

Their involvement was critical to the collection of field data from villages scattered through rugged, remote terrain; the co-ordinated efforts of field workers and scientists ultimately garnered two Nobel prizes (and contributed indirectly to a third). Their continuing surveys have informed and shaped the public-health response to Europe’s “mad cow” disease, particularly at its British epicentre, providing warning that a substantial second wave of deaths is inevitable, and that dormant carriers of the infection will long pose a threat to safe blood, organ and tissue supplies. Their legacy also endures in the footnotes of emerging insights into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Written By: Jo Chandler
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