Studies on Kuru

III. Patterns of Kuru Incidence: Demographic and Geographic Epidemiological Analysis

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  • National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Department of Native Affairs, Bethesda, Maryland
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Melanesians of the Highlands of New Guinea are best considered a single geographic breeding unit whose distant origins can no longer be traced. Cultural and environmental factors have contributed to situations of extreme isolation of cleavage communities which has resulted in a condition ideal for the operation of random genetic drift and consequent development of markedly diverse small groups, each with its own genetic constitution.

Wurm's classification of Highland languages into the East New Guinea Highland Stock and Phylum and his glottochronological calculations with respect to the languages in this Stock are used cautiously as one means of demonstrating probable long isolation and independent evolution of the Fore people.

Intermarriage across language borders and migrations of smaller and larger groups across such boundaries have probably played a major role in determining the current pattern of kuru incidence and distribution. However, the central nucleus of kuru, with the current highest prevalence and mortality, is found in the Purosa and Atigina native areas of the South Fore, and the kuru mutation most probably first arose in a direct ancestor of these peoples.

Detailed analysis of the pattern of kuru incidence of 961 kuru cases studied since the beginning of 1957 is presented with prevalence and mortality figures for the entire kuru region. This is believed to represent an essentially complete coverage of all kuru cases that have occurred in the 4 years 1957 through 1960.

Distortions in the male to female sex ratio in the kuru region are marked, with a preponderance of males, particularly in those regions of highest kuru prevalence and mortality. Presumably, the disproportionately high toll of females among kuru victims has contributed to this pattern. Thus, the extent of departure from normal Highland sex ratios in populations in the kuru region may reflect the extent and the duration of kuru involvement in the various communities.