The afflicted had contorted, anguished faces and tremors. As their illness progressed, they lost the ability to speak or move, but would laugh uncontrollably. Their devastating disease became known as “the laughing death”. It had nearly wiped out the Fore people of the Purosa Valley in the remote highlands of what was then the Australian colony of New Guinea. The Fore believed it was a curse, and blamed sorcery for the condition, which they called “kuru”. Intrigued, medical scientists postulated a genetic cause, or maybe an environmental factor.
When medical student Michael Alpers came across a report of this mysterious disease in the Adelaide Advertiser in 1957, he was drawn by a sense of adventure and the opportunity to “do health in a different kind of way”. So, after graduating in 1961, he secured a post as a medical officer for the Australian administration, and soon found himself deep in New Guinea’s kuru heartland.
Alpers, now the Professor of International Health at Curtin University in Western Australia, now sits in his kitchen in Fremantle and tells me the story of what he found as a young doctor visiting the New Guinea highlands more than 50 years ago.