The disease causes a gait disturbance, incoordination, trembling, and shivering. In time, difficulty in swallowing and feeding oneself leads to malnutrition. Death usually occurs within several years of the onset of the disease. Kuru is also called trembling disease (kuru means trembling). In sheep and goats, a similar disease is called scrapie.
The discovery of kuru is one of the more interesting detective stories of 20th-century medicine. Dr. D. Carlton Gajdusek (1923-2008) first described the disease among the Fore people of New Guinea. It was known by them as kuru (meaning "trembling"). After years of living among the Fore people, Gajdusek came to the conclusion that the disease was transmitted in the ritualistic eating of the brains of the deceased, a Fore funeral custom. With the elimination of cannibalism, Kuru disappeared within a generation. In 1976 Gajdusek shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases."