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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
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

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 Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

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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