Prions are misfolded proteins that cause neurodegenerative diseases. They are smaller than viruses and they are the smallest known infectous pathogen. Somehow they could reproduce on their own and the diseases it causes require decades long periods of incubation.

Prions are said to be almost indestructible and there is no drug or treatment to cure and deal with them.

So what could civilization do to deal with it?

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. Please narrow down your post to a single, worldbuilding question, and be sure to include what have you already found based on your research. Make sure to read our help center to understand what we expect from good questions $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jan 26 '21 at 5:50
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    $\begingroup$ I'd suggest news-medical.net/health/How-Do-Prion-Diseases-Spread.aspx - We're kinda lucky in that these are so hard to spread. So long as your world doesn't have an equivariant to anti-maskers who defend their "first-amendment right" to cannibalism, the world could defeat the pandemic by ignoring it and getting on with life. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Jan 26 '21 at 6:49
  • $\begingroup$ What civilization? You have not told us about your world one bit. If this is a real-world question then you're on the wrong site. $\endgroup$ Feb 5 '21 at 3:38

We have already coped with a prion epidemic, the Bovin Spongiform Encephalopaty or "mad cow" disease.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, is a neurodegenerative disease of cattle. Symptoms include abnormal behavior, trouble walking, and weight loss. Later in the course of the disease the cow becomes unable to function normally. The time between infection and onset of symptoms is generally four to five years. Time from onset of symptoms to death is generally weeks to months. Spread to humans is believed to result in variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD). As of 2018, a total of 231 cases of vCJD had been reported globally.

BSE is thought to be due to an infection by a misfolded protein, known as a prion. Cattle are believed to have been infected by being fed meat-and-bone meal (MBM) that contained either the remains of cattle who spontaneously developed the disease or scrapie-infected sheep products. The outbreak increased throughout the United Kingdom due to the practice of feeding meat-and-bone meal to young calves of dairy cows. Cases are suspected based on symptoms and confirmed by examination of the brain. Cases are classified as classic or atypical, with the latter divided into H- and L types. It is a type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE).

Efforts to prevent the disease in the UK include not allowing any animal older than 30 months to enter either the human food or animal feed supply. In continental Europe, cattle over 30 months must be tested if they are intended for human food. In North America, tissue of concern, known as specified risk material, may not be added to animal feed or pet food. About four million cows were killed during the eradication programme in the UK.

Four cases were reported globally in 2017, and the condition is considered to be nearly eradicated. In the United Kingdom, from 1986 to 2015, more than 184,000 cattle were diagnosed with the peak of new cases occurring in 1993. A few thousand additional cases have been reported in other regions of the world. It is believed that several million cattle with the condition likely entered the food supply during the outbreak.

It could spread to humans

Spread to humans is believed to result in variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD). The agent can be transmitted to humans by eating food contaminated with it. Though any tissue may be involved, the highest risk to humans is believed to be from eating food contaminated with the brain, spinal cord, or digestive tract.

But we managed to contain it by suppressing the infected cows and not consuming potentially contaminated food.

Luckily at the time nobody marched down the street claiming the right to eat Fiorentina beefsteak or a deceased ancestor's brain, so we managed to contain it with not so drastic measures.

Since prions diseases seem to affect the brain and spine tissues, it's likely that future epidemics will be dealt in a similar fashion.


Wow, what a hideous idea.

There are lots of unmentioned questions regarding your scenario: the main being transmission.

So, I'm guessing you aren't talking about eating brains as a means of transmission - a Kuru epidemic would require a change in diet, unless it's a sequel to Soylent Green.

So maybe it's airborne or, like covid, transmitted via droplets or, like ebola, via blood.

Like other prions, it's 'simple' – it folds similar proteins on contact.

Most proteins are buried behind all sorts of defences. But let's say there's a keratin prion - it converts keratin into itself, which happens to convert hair into a gaseous particulate - like smoke - which is highly carcinogenic.

So in this scenario, infected hair would - at first slowly, and then more rapidly, collapse, leaving behind an airborne residue of prions. There's your pandemic.

Prions resist degradation and persist in the environment for years. FFP3 respirators may offer some protection. Not much, mind you.

So what could civilization do to deal with it? Let me hazard a guess: We adapt or we die.

Much of what happens depends upon if there's any natural resistance to the cancer already. Let's assume not: It's like being resistant to any other toxic carcinogen - not likely.

Maybe there's some sort of preventative k-prion spray that dissolves it. Well, the outside is a huge place, and the spray is more likely to do damage itself than to help out.

I reckon we would die. What civilisation would need to to is to accept it's end, and mourn with grace and dignity.


You deal with a prion in the same manner as any other disease. Contain and separate the infected to limit transmission to new hosts.

Once spread is contained, a vaccine/cure is developed and administered. While any defects caused by the disease is alleviated to the best of our ability.

(As for a cure, well if a prion essentially multiples by attaching to another protein and editing it to be identical to itself. You "simply" need to make a new prion that attaches to the harmful prion and fixes it. And in any good story, this is where the zombies show up)

The reason why this isn't done today, is because all prion diseases have extremely low transmission rates, so the resources needed to make a cure, is in no way proportional to the cost of the disease.


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