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 chi
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. Unlike the Alto"tms 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 tradition among the Fore to eat the bodies of the deceased including the brain, resulted in the spreading of the Kuru. 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. 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. Poor health can be a universal state, but particular illnesses may only affect certain cultures based on the varying traditions, values, and practices. The Fore"tms struggle with Kuru was caused by a cultural practice. 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 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. 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. 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"tm, the mother should not waste food on a baby that will soon pass on (Scheper-Hughes, 370).