Watch the Kuru-RiAus event

Special Jury Prize Winner, Pacific International Documentary Film Festival 2011.

This is the true story of one of the most incredible and challenging medical detective stories of the 20th Century; a history of human tragedy, adventure and discovery. It is the story of the Fore, a Papuan community immersed in cannibalistic mortuary practices and sorcery in one of the most remote regions on the planet, and the tragic disease that threatened to wipe out their entire population.

In 1961, a young Australian medical researcher, Michael Alpers, puts up his hand to work on a new and strange disease in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. There, he teams up with an American outer, Dr Carleton Gajdusek, who has been in the local Fore region since 1957. For Michael it is the beginning of a lifelong obsession.

Together, they are amidst a major epidemic. It is killing over 200 people a year with devastating effects. It mainly targets women and children. The local people, the Fore, call the disease kuru, their word for shivering. They believe it is caused by sorcery.

Michael and Carleton are baffled by the disease. There are no scientific disciplines to guide them as they attempt to unravel its mysteries. By pure chance, a link is made to a strange transmissible animal disease in sheep, Scrapie. The two kuru researchers embark on a 10-year experiment to see if the fatal degenerative brain disease in humans could be transmissible like Scrapie.

The decision is made to perform an autopsy on a kuru victim and inoculate the kuru material into a chimpanzee. Kigea, ayoung girl in the village is identified as being in the early stages of kuru. Kigea’s family, gives Michael permission to perform an autopsy upon her death.

A brain sample taken from Kigea after her death is flown to the USA and injected into a chimpanzee called Daisy. While Michael follows the progress of the transmission experiment, he starts to collate all the recorded data on kuru and begins to suspect cannibalism as the cause of the spreadof the disease.

Within two years, he diagnoses Daisy with kuru. This is a defining moment. It confirms kuru is transmissible and can cross the species barrier. The revelation, together with epidemiological data collated with anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum, links the Fore’s mortuary feasts (consumption of dead relatives) to the transmission of kuru. Cannibalism is the cause, and its origin is linked to a rare disease called Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease(CJD), but the story of kuru is far from over.

The infecting agent is the first new pathogen – prions – to be discovered in over 100 years. Research results in two Nobel prizes: it’s discoveries turning scientific understanding upside down, causing rifts in the beliefs ofthe science community.

Then Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE) reared its head in the mid 1980s, and 10 years later the human variant CJD. All eyes turned to kuru, the only model of a prion epidemic in human populations. Many unknowns still surround prion diseases: there is no cure for kuru, or any of the prion diseases. The effects are devastating and unprecedented incubation periods can extend beyond 50 years.

Michael is the key and heart to this story, providing unique access to the Fore people, and the world’s other leading authorities on the matter; including Americans Prof. DC Gajdusek (Nobel Prize 1976), Prof. Stan Prusiner (Nobel Prize 1997), Prof Shirley Lindenbaum (Anthropologist) and British Prof. John Collinge (Director, MRC Prion Unit, UK).

Kuru: The Science and the Sorcery combines history, science and anthropology to tell a unique and ongoing ‘history of science’ documentary spanning five decades. It intertwines the thinking of great minds, locally and internationally, to reveal how this rare disease in the remote highlands of PNG exploded to international attention and how Prion research has now revealed we are all descendants of a remote past of cannibal practices.

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