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If You Cannibalize a Person With an Illness, Will You Get Sick?

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Reader Sarah wrote in to ask, “If you eat a person who has an infectious disease, will you get the disease too? A morbid question I thought of while sitting in a doctor’s office and was too shy to ask.”

Most human illnesses aren’t going to pose a problem for a potential Hannibal Lecter. Cancer isn’t contagious, and one person’s cancer cells generally aren’t able to live inside anyone else because a healthy immune system will wipe them out. (There have, however, been a few instances where people “caught” cancer from an organ transplant, because they had to take drugs to suppress their immune systems so their bodies wouldn’t reject the new organs). HIV and most other nasty microorganisms, meanwhile, can be "cooked out," or destroyed by heat.

This isn’t to say that you should whip out the fava beans and Chianti just yet.

There are still a few risks that go along with cannibalism. Malaria parasites can spread among mice through cannibalism and blood-drinking, and scientists think that the simian immunodeficiency virus and hepatitis spread among chimpanzees the same way. (However, none of this has been shown in humans, and such a study probably wouldn’t pass an ethics board anyway.) It’s also possible that people could pick up tapeworms through cannibalism.

However, the biggest health threat tied to cannibalism is prion diseases, a group of neurodegenerative disorders that are spread by eating contaminated meat. Prions are misfolded proteins that wreak havoc in healthy bodies by causing healthy proteins to change shape and convert even more proteins into prions. You wind up with a cascade of misshapen proteins that cause tissue damage and cell death, and eventually brain deterioration, loss of motor control and death. It's nasty stuff, and the human brain, bone marrow, spinal cord and small intestine can all harbor prions, which aren’t easily killed denatured by cooking.

You Probably Shouldn't Read This Part While Eating

You’ve heard of at least one prion disease, mad cow disease, but the one more relevant to human cannibalism is kuru. In the 1950s and '60s, the Fore people of Papua New Guinea experienced an outbreak of a strange, unidentified and incurable illness. Villagers in the Eastern Highlands area, predominantly women and children, fell ill with muscle tremors, uncontrollable fits of laughter, slurred speech and loss of motor control. Almost every single one of them died, often in a few months or less. Scientists went to the villages to treat the victims and study the disease, and soon discovered that the sickness had a grisly origin.

The Fore were known for their tradition of “mortuary feasts,” where the death of a family member was commemorated with the ritual consumption of their body, including the organs. The scientists figured out that the disease was being spread through prions contained in the funerary meal. Women and children got sick more often because they usually got stuck eating the brains and viscera, while the men of the family got the “better” meat from the muscles.

At the height of the epidemic the government banned mortuary feasts, and although a few might still have happened in secret afterwards, the last known case of kuru ended with the death of the patient in 2005.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Difference Between Generic and Name Brand Ibuprofen?
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What is the difference between generic ibuprofen vs. name brands?

Yali Friedman:

I just published a paper that answers this question: Are Generic Drugs Less Safe than their Branded Equivalents?

Here’s the tl;dr version:

Generic drugs are versions of drugs made by companies other than the company which originally developed the drug.

To gain FDA approval, a generic drug must:

  • Contain the same active ingredients as the innovator drug (inactive ingredients may vary)
  • Be identical in strength, dosage form, and route of administration
  • Have the same use indications
  • Be bioequivalent
  • Meet the same batch requirements for identity, strength, purity, and quality
  • Be manufactured under the same strict standards of FDA's good manufacturing practice regulations required for innovator products

I hope you found this answer useful. Feel free to reach out at www.thinkbiotech.com. For more on generic drugs, you can see our resources and whitepapers at Pharmaceutical strategic guidance and whitepapers

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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