In the remote Russian village of Kalachi in Kazakhstan (central Asia), a mysterious illness is baffling scientists around the world. Dubbed the “sleeping sickness,” it causes people to suddenly fall asleep for anywhere from two to six days, accompanied by “startling” memory loss, blinding headaches, back pain, dizziness and general “edginess.” Intensity can range from full sleep to a deep, sluggish drowsiness.
“Whatever they are doing,” reported the Telegraph, “whoever they are, and at any time or day, a resident of this remote settlement on the central Asian steppe lives with the knowledge they may suddenly fall asleep – and remain unconscious for days.”
Victims say one moment they’re walking, talking or reading … and the next they’re asleep. Some people have been hit with sleeping episodes no less than eight times. Certain victims, particularly children, report terrifying hallucinations. One toddler survived in utero his mother’s bout of sleeping sickness. The affliction even affects animals. One woman reported her cat had fallen asleep after a “bizarre outburst of hyperactivity.”
First reported in early 2010 in the town of 600, the number of people afflicted has been steadily rising since March 2013. “The sleeping epidemic has appeared in definite waves among locals who are mainly ethnic Russians and Germans,” reported the Siberian Times almost a year ago. “The second came in May 2013, around Easter time. Since then there were three move waves of this sleeping epidemic – around New Year 2014, after the winter school holiday and this month, in May 2014.”
The community has reported it’s now on its ninth wave of attacks. Without knowing what the toxic agent is, doctors cannot offer any particular treatment. Clinics and hospitals report there is little they can do except nurse victims through their slumber.
The condition is unrelated to the African sleeping sickness trypanosomiasis, a parasitic disease spread by the bite of a tsetse fly.
The strongest inclination is to blame the nearby town of Krasnogorsk, where uranium ore was mined until the late 1980s. The town is largely abandoned, with only a few dozen families still living there. But none of the Krasnogorsk residents have been afflicted with the sleeping syndrome, nor did any of the miners report a similar fate when the mine was active. The mine has been ruled out as a causative factor after dozens of research expeditions failed to yield a link.
Causes of the sleeping episodes continue to baffle both regional and international researchers. Some theories have arisen, but nothing offers any concrete links or common issues:
- Waves of attacks seem more common during a thaw than when the ground is frozen.
- Some say there is a correlation with wind direction.
- Viral and bacterial tests have ruled out known diseases.
- Researchers have discounted underground gas and the local mobile phone tower.
- Unexplained high levels of carbon monoxide having been reported in the air.
- There is a theory that water from the disused uranium mine is seeping into domestic water supplies, but no evidence has confirmed it.
- Other theories put forward include carbon monoxide poisoning and even mass hysteria.
“A large number of scientists have come to this remote backwater to seek to explain the phenomenon,” reports the Siberian Times. “In all, they have conducted 7,000 experiments on soil, water, air, patients’ blood, hair, nails, without pinpointing the problem, it is claimed.”
“Sadly, the nature of this condition is still not known,” said Dr. Kabdrashit Almagambetov. “We have excluded infections, we checked blood and spine liquid, nothing is there. We categorized it as toxic encephalopathy, but ‘toxic’ is just a guess here, and encephalopathy is just the title of the set of brain diseases.”
Newsweek wrote, “[Professor Leonid Rikhvanov from the Department of Geo-ecology and Geo-chemistry at the Tomsk Polytechnic University in Russia] does not presently believe the disease to be a completely new one, as the symptoms are similar to chronic fatigue syndrome disease, caused by radiation, but says that if cases continued to grow, and there is still no scientific consensus, it could be classed as a new disease.”
The long-term effects of the disease are unknown and so far unstudied.
Local authorities decided to start evacuating people from the village, as the situation shows no sign of abating. Priority is being given to the families who have children in the village, with officials saying they plan to close off the entire village by May. Currently the relocations are voluntary.