Not many people in the west know much about Papua New Guinea. It is, after all, just one island nation on the other side of the world. They aren’t generally known for their great cultural achievements, feats of engineering, or military power. One of the few things they are known for, however, is Papua New Guinea’s all-too-recent history of tribal cannibalism. The practice was finally outlawed in the 1950’s, and that’s good, but that isn’t the end of the story.
The Fore people, a once-isolated tribe in eastern PNG, had a long-standing tradition of feasting on their dead at funerals. While no doubt ghoulish to our eyes, it was even more terrible for the Fore than we might suspect. A disease known as Kuru – similar in many ways to Mad Cow disease – would kill as many as 2% of the population each year. Kuru was caused by eating the brains of the dead, an act which exposed the mourners and any other cannibals to strange, deformed proteins called prions (PREE-on’s). The resulting disease caused neurological degeneration which was nearly always fatal.
In 2015, however, researchers completed a study on the Fore people, and their findings revealed a surprising genetic change among many members of that tribe. It turns out that, in spite of the many people among the Fore who contracted Kuru decades ago, many of them were highly resistant, or even immune to, Kuru. Having been exposed for untold generations to prions, many Fore who were susceptible to this disease had died of it before passing that susceptibility on to their children. Many Fore today have a genetic mutation which removes the conditions the prions exploit to cause Kuru, so they are immune, or nearly immune. That’s good news, but not very useful for people who aren’t Fore, right?
Wrong, actually. You see, Kuru is very similar to some other terrible diseases you may have heard of, such as Mad Cow Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and the fact that the Fore are highly resistant to Kuru means they may also be resistant to these more familiar, terrible afflictions. This new discovery will become a tool doctors can use in their battle against many degenerative neurological disorders.
How interesting is it that the horrible practice of cannibalism has been turned on its ear by God? Out of that dark cultural practice, He has brought the hope of healing.
Just the same old miracle He does every other day, turning weakness and pain into life and love and it all happened in my beloved Papua New Guinea!