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

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
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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
How Do You Steer a Bobsled?
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Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are well underway, you might have developed a few questions about the games' equipment. For example: How does one steer a bobsled? Let's take a crack at answering this pressing query.

How do you steer a bobsled?

Bobsled teams careen down an icy, curving track at up to 90 miles per hour, so steering is no small concern. Drivers steer their sleds just like you steered your childhood sleds—by manipulating a pair of ropes connected to the sled's steel runners. The driver also gets help from the rest of the crew members, who shift their weight to aid with the steering.

Why do speed skaters wear glasses?

speed-skating

Speed skaters can fly around the ice at upwards of 40 mph, so those sunglasses-type specs they wear aren't merely ornamental. At such high speeds, it's not very pleasant to have wind blowing in your eyes; it's particularly nightmarish if the breeze is drying out your contact lenses. On top of that, there's all sorts of ice and debris flying around on a speed skating track that could send you on a fast trip to the ophthalmologist.

Some skaters also say the glasses help them see the track. American skater Ryan Bedford recently told the Saginaw News that his tinted shades help him focus on the track and filter out distracting lights and camera flashes from the crowd.

What kind of heat are the biathletes packing?

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As you might guess, there are fairly strict rules governing what sort of rifles biathletes carry on the course. They are equipped with guns chambered for .22 LR ammunition. The gun must weigh at least 3.5 kilograms without its magazines and ammunition, and the rifle has to have a bolt action or a straight-pull bolt rather than firing automatically or semi-automatically.

Is a curling stone really made of stone?

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You bet it is, and it's not just any old stone, either. Curling enthusiasts swear by a very specific type of granite called ailsite that is only found on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. Ailsite supposedly absorbs less water than other types of stone, so they last longer than their competitors.

Ailsa Craig is now a wildlife sanctuary, so no new ailsite has been quarried since 2002. As a result, curling stones are incredibly expensive. Kays of Scotland, which has made the stones for every Olympics in which curling has been an official event, gets prices upwards of $1,500 per stone.

What about the brooms?

The earliest curling brooms were actual brooms made of wood with straw heads. Modern brooms, though, are a bit more technologically advanced. The handles are usually made of carbon fiber, and the heads can be made of synthetic materials or natural hair from horses or hogs. Synthetic materials tend to be more common now because they pull all of the debris off of the ice and don't drop the occasional stray bristle like a natural hair broom might.

What are the ski jumpers wearing?

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It may look like a ski jumper can pull on any old form-fitting bodysuit and hit the mountain, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Their suits have to be made of a spongy material and can't be thicker than five millimeters. Additionally, the suits must allow a certain amount of air to pass through them; jumpers wearing suits without sufficient air permeability are disqualified. (This rule keeps jumpers from wearing suits that could unfairly act as airfoils.) These rules are seriously enforced, too; Norwegian skier Sigurd Petterson found himself DQed at the 2006 Torino Games due to improper air permeability.

Those aren't the only concerns, though. In 2010, judges disqualified Italian jumper Roberto Dellasega because his suit was too baggy.

What's up with the short track speed skaters' gloves?

Gloves
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

If you watch a bit of short track speed skating, the need for gloves quickly becomes apparent. When the skaters go to make passes or careen around a turn, they need the gloves to keep from cutting their hands due to incidental contact with other skaters' blades.

There's more to the gloves than just safety, though. Since the skaters' hands often touch the ice during turns, they need hard fingertip coverings that won't add friction and slow them down. The tips can be made of any material as long as it's hard and smooth, but you've got to give American skater Apolo Ohno some style points for the gold-tipped left glove he broke out in 2010.

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