THE COMING PLAGUE

Beyond the threat of neglected borders and scores of opportunistic, communicable diseases, some cultural behaviours (including some of our own) are creating a mass of ticking time bombs – genetic code in place – waiting to unravel. Europeans have traditionally viewed afterbirth as little more than an unavoidable waste product of the human condition, preferring to make a fuss over the baby instead. This attitude is by no means universal: "Among the Bolivian Aymara and Quecha people, the placenta is said to have its own spirit. It is to be washed and buried by the husband in a secret and shady place. ... Among the Ibo of Nigeria and Ghana, the placenta is treated as the dead twin of the live child and given full burial rites. Filipino mothers are known to bury it with books, in hopes of a smart child. ... Preparing the placenta for consumption by mothers because of its high protein content is a tradition among Vietnamese and Chinese people." (National Post, January 12, 1999) Human placenta features in the preparation of traditional Chinese medicines, where it is called Zi he che. "The sale and consumption of placentae is common in China, though frowned upon by the authorities. Only those with good connections to the medical world can obtain placentae, which cost between 2.50 and 3.00 pounds Sterling each. According to traditional Chinese medicine, it is regarded as particularly beneficial for a nursing mother to eat her own placenta because it improves her milk. It is usually drunk in the form of a soup." (London Daily Telegraph, April 13, 1995)

Ah, diversity!

In an effort to infuse some of this 'non-Western spirituality into the role of the placenta', TV Dinners, an esoteric British cookery show, brought 'placentophagy' to prime time last year giving the term 'small fry' new sizzle. On an otherwise dull February evening, stunned viewers tuned in to the heart-warming sight of "a mother preparing and eating a placenta plate to celebrate the birth of her daughter. (Rosie) Clear said that she wanted to give (part of her new baby oops! That's) a party for her new baby, Indi-Mo Krebbs, but neither she nor her boyfriend were Christian, so they (naturally?) settled on a party with the placenta instead. The placenta was fried with shallots and garlic, flambeed, pureed and finally served to 20 guests on focaccia bread. The father of the child, Lee, had 17 helpings. (Oink! At one point he browbeat a vegetarian guest into gagging down the clotty repast. One reviewer said the festivities marked 'a new low in sheer grossness even by the already debased standards of the series.' But consider, among Channel 4's millions of viewers, just nine people found the subject matter sufficiently gruesome to complain to the Broadcasting Standards Commission) The commission took the view that the programme ... "breached convention in a way which would have been disagreeable to many." (London Telegraph, May 28, 1998) Smothering every normal human instinct, the child's social-worker grandmother toasted this gene pool on toast and hollered, "Dive in!"

The taboo against ingesting this post-partum staple of the animal kingdom may have been beneath the notice of the Clear-Krebbs Crowd, but even the dippiest Brit ought to know something about the disease vectors of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies by now – by some estimates, TSEs will ultimately leave half the British people suffering an Alzheimer's-like living death. Until recently, the infective agents of TSEs – scrapie in sheep, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), Creutzfeldt-Jakob (CJD) and variants like sporadic fatal insomnia – were presumed to be slow, latent viruses. The latest hypothesis is that these diseases are caused by something smaller than viruses: rogue proteins called prions (pree-ons). "It has been generally accepted that conveyers of transmissible diseases require genetic material, composed of nucleic acid (DNA or RNA), in order to establish an infection in a host. Even viruses, which are among the simplest microbes, rely on such material to direct synthesis of the proteins needed for survival and replication. Prions appear to convert normal protein molecules into dangerous ones simply by inducing the benign molecules to change shape." (U.S. Pharmacist, June 1997) TSE diseases (all fatal) are characterized by a slow, progressive infection of the central nervous system and the brain, which is left riddled with holes. Decreased co-ordination progresses to paralysis, dementia, slurring of speech, visual disturbances, and, in the final stages, all mental and physical functions are lost. Despite an incredibly slow incubation period of thirty years or more, the appearance of symptoms is usually followed by death within 12 months – and prions survive not just cooking, but normal sterilization procedures. It is suspected that a high proportion of deaths attributed to Alzheimer's are, in fact, TSEs, but the risk of contamination and a growing reluctance to perform post-mortems on possible TSE victims may be skewing numbers. BSE, CJD and "kuru, an epidemic neurological disorder found in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. ... associated with the practice of ritual endo-cannibalism." (British Medical Journal, BMJ 1998; 3 17: 1688-1692) – all share an improperly understood commonality that has something to do with the "introduction" (by whatever means) of cerebral, spinal cord, or super-enriched tissue – like a placenta.

New Guineans traditionally engaged in funeral rites in which portions of the brain were consumed. The practice was outlawed under colonial administration during the 1950s and incidence of the disease is, thus, slowly abating. Equally, in the West, from the 1960s through 1985, thousands of short-statured children and infertile women were injected with hormones derived from human cadavers, turning many of these into long-term incubators of CJD, although in the case of the children, significant numbers developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease within just 10 years. CJD has also been transmitted through "corneal transplants, and contaminated surface electroencephalogram electrodes and neurosurgical instruments." (Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 4. 43, July-September 1998) TSEs may be heritable; for example, the incidence among Libyan Jews is quite high (26 cases as opposed to one case per million in the population overall), but the great tragedy of this coming plague is the fact that much of it is man-made. Western medical arrogance has been abetted by the soulless cost efficiencies of adding ground bone meal and meat by-products to animal feed. Hard to stomach as anthropophagy may be in Africa, New Guinea and elsewhere. "A dissident Chinese journalist, Zheng Yi, discovered officially sanctioned cannibalism of the livers of class enemies in the province of Guangxi during the decade of Cultural Revolution that began in the People's Republic of China in 1966." (Richard Rhodes, Deadly Feasts: The Prion Controversy and the Public's Health, Touchstone Press, 1998, p. 25), it is just not as repulsive as the ghoulish glee of the Clear-Krebbs gang. Listen to the cannibalistic grandmother, in an excerpt from the programme transcript: "Lovely ... you can taste the garlic. (chewing) Texture's nice. Not too strong. Not gamy." (Harper's Magazine, February, 1999) The implications to national blood supplies and already failing health, pension and geriatric sectors are simply terrifying. While it may be hard to believe that vast numbers of selfless immigrants have signed up to cheerfully care for us (come what may!) in our dotage, it is equally hard to imagine that vast numbers of us would have voluntarily chosen the prospect of an old age assailed by the tremors and living-death associated with prion diseases.

October, 2000

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