Mysterious "sleeping sickness" that baffled doctors and researchers since it's first known attack in March 2013, affected more than 140 people in Kalachi and Krasnogorsk, two villages in northern Kazakhstan, with a total of 810 people, mostly ethnic Russians and Germans.
The affected people have fallen asleep suddenly, sometimes while walking or riding their bikes, and occasionally becoming unconscious for up to six days at a time, waking up with memory loss, headaches and grogginess. Some fell victim more than half a dozen times.
The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported in 2014: “The sick person appears to be conscious and can even walk. But all the same he then falls into a deep sleep and snores, and when they wake him up… the person remembers absolutely nothing.”
The mysterious illness has sent residents into comas, sometimes lasting days on end. “I was going to town on August 28 ,” Kazachenko told EurasiaNet.org, still disoriented by the experience. “I came round on September 2. I understood [on waking up] in the hospital that I’d fallen asleep.”
The sickness appears to affect villagers irrespective of their age. Some children dropped off at school. Some even suffered from nightmarish hallucinations. Local children Rudolf Boyarinos and Misha Plyukhin told Komsomolskaya Pravda they had seen winged horses, snakes in their beds and worms eating their hands. Even pets didn't appear to be immune to the ailment. Kalachi resident Yelena Zhavoronkova's cat Marquis was reported to be affected.
The primary suspect for the illness was counterfeit vodka. As the epidemic grew the doctors began diagnosing people with “encephalopathy of an unknown origin”, a generic term for brain illnesses. Many suspected the nearby uranium mines that were closed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan’s health ministry tested more than 7 000 nearby homes, but didn’t find significantly high levels of radiation or of heavy metals and their salts. It detected raised radium levels in some homes, but it was not enough to explain the phenomenon. Even sleep disorder experts could not find a cause. One somnologist told Komsomolskaya Pravda in 2014 that the two isolated villages were most likely suffering from a case of mass psychosis similar to the “Bin Laden itch”, a psychosomatic rash that afflicted children in the US as fears of terrorist attacks peaked in 2002.
Now scientists think they might have solved the mystery, with the Kazakstani government announcing recently that the sleeping sickness experienced in the villages is effectively a form of carbon monoxide poisoning, caused by large amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons being released into the air by the defunct uranium mines. "The uranium mines were closed at some point, and at times a concentration of carbon monoxide occurs there," Deputy Prime Minister Berdibek Saparbaev told the press. "The oxygen in the air is reduced accordingly, which is the real reason for the sleeping sickness in these villages."
The conclusion makes sense, as carbon monoxide binds to human blood 200 times more strongly than oxygen, which means that just a small amount of it is enough to cut off the oxygen to someone's brain. However, not everyone is convinced. "The symptoms fit," Claude Piantadosi, a lung specialist at Duke University Medical Centre in the US, told Sarah Zhang over at Wired.
"But the symptoms are not specific... and that’s the problem." Zhang also says that it seems improbable that closed uranium mines would be releasing dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, which is a byproduct of combustion.
While the mystery may not be solved just yet, the government is currently in the process of evacuating the remaining residents in the villages to prevent further sickness. Some villagers have expressed a preference for compensation, but many remain opposed to leaving the place where they grew up.
Featured image: A lack of scientific facts has led locals to suspect that an abandoned uranium mine could be the cause of the ‘sleeping sickness’. Photo credit: Joanna Lillis /EurasiaNet.