Traditions, practices, habits and beliefs vary among each culture, as does the environment, and availability of goods and supplies. The definition of illness also varies depending on the culture and what is considered good versus bad health. Due to this diversity in everyday life, and the arbitrary definition of health, an illness is specific to the culture it affects. Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ work in Brazil, and her observations of the tendency of the Alto culture to put small value on children until they prove their will to live, is an example of how illness is specific to certain cultures.
In this particular case, healthcare is only given out based on the belief in its necessity. In Western culture, Biomedicine is improving everyday to help premature babies, and sickly babies to survive, whereas in this Brazilian culture, there is the belief that babies are replaceable and little effort is shown to aid a sick baby. Scheper-Hughes credits this maternal thinking among the Alto to result in an “average expectable environment of child death” (Scheper-Hughes, 20).
The small amount of value that this specific culture places on babies results in an enormous number of infant deaths in comparison to any other culture. Although, blame may be placed on the economic, social, and political weakness that surround the Alto, the horrible conditions including no food supply, bacteria-ridden water, and no medical health care, have become the culture of this Northeast Brazilian people. The death rates are specific to the Alto, not solely because of circumstances they cannot control, but because of choices they make based on cultural beliefs.
Malnutrition could be due to the poor economy of the country, but instead, it is because of child neglect that comes with the maternal thinking that if a child is born ‘wanting to die’, the mother should not waste food on a baby that will soon pass on (Scheper-Hughes, 370). A child that is ‘having trouble dying’, will be placed in the back of the house, and left to convulse, or bang its head on the floor. This neglect of certain children that the Alto deem as doomed to die is rooted in the culture, not the society, or the economy or any uncontrollable factors.
The illness and death rates of the Alto are specific to their culture based on their beliefs and practices. This culture-specific statistic is similar to the culture-specific disease, Kuru, found among the Fore people of New Guinea. The tradition among the Fore to eat the bodies of the deceased including the brain, resulted in the spreading of the Kuru. Cannibalism was common because of the Fore belief that “the dead liked to be eaten, and their wishes should be respected” (Anderson, 721).
Just as Western culture honors the dead with burial or cremation, the Fore honor the dead through eating the body. This tradition however, resulted in the spreading of Kuru, which would not be found in any other culture that does not practice cannibalism. The actual origin of Kuru may have come from any animal or source outside of the Fore culture, but because of their practice of eating the dead, Kuru spread and became a disease that solely affected this culture.
Women and children were more susceptible to Kuru because of the tradition that the women prepared the dead bodies, and were first to encounter the disease in the brain of the deceased. The children then contracted the disease from the women, the primary caretakers of the children. The Fore people were isolated from nearby societies and so Kuru remained specific to this culture. Other cultures however, may not have contracted the disease because of their lack of tradition in eating the dead, as was within the Fore culture.
Unlike the Alto’s high infant death rates, which were due to many causes, the Fore experienced one cause of death, Kuru, but in both cases, the problems were resultants of a cultural practice or belief that was specific to that culture. The Alto’s poor care of certain infants was rooted in the cultural value system. The Fore’s struggle with Kuru was caused by a cultural practice. Poor health can be a universal state, but particular illnesses may only affect certain cultures based on the varying traditions, values, and practices.