Sleepy Hollow: Kazakhstan's mystery sleeping sickness

Village evacuated as doctors are baffled by residents who fall asleep for days at a time

(Image credit: RT)

Residents of a small village in northern Kazakhstan dubbed "Sleepy Hollow" are being evacuated after scientists failed to determine the cause of a long-running "sleeping sickness".

More than a tenth of Kalachi's population has succumbed to the mystery illness, with residents suddenly falling asleep in the middle of the day – sometimes for up to week, according to RT.

Doctors and scientists, including virologists, radiologists, and toxicologists have travelled to the region to attempt to solve the mystery. They have taken soil, air and water samples as well as testing the patients' blood, hair and nails, and have excluded viral and bacterial infections. Narcolepsy has also been ruled out, because of the scale of the illness, but doctors appear no closer to determining its cause.

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The first case was recorded in March 2013 and waves of the illness continue to be reported. Symptoms include hallucinations – one young boy says he saw snakes and worms in his bed, eating his arms – as well as memory loss, dizziness, and nausea.

"When the patient wakes up, he will remember nothing," Dr Kabdrashit Almagambetov told The Siberian Times. "The story is one and the same each time – weakness, slow reactions, then fast asleep."

Locals say they are afraid that one day they will fall asleep and never wake up again. "The sleep is so deep that some locals fear an old man they assumed was dead could have been buried alive," reports Vice.

The symptoms do not fit any known diseases – so what could be causing the illness? Here are some of the leading suggestions:

Carbon monoxide

The poisonous gas has no smell or taste and is considered to be the most likely cause of the illness – at least according to officials in Kazakhstan.

"Carbon monoxide is definitely a factor," said Sergei Lukashenko, the director of Kazakhstan's National Nuclear Center's Radiation Safety and Ecology Institute. "But I can't tell you whether this is the main and vital factor." His team suspects that the village is in a "peculiar" geographic location, where the weather frequently forces chimney smoke "to go down instead of up".

However, other dispute this, as the illness can strike when people are outside or at work, away from their homes. Also, "carbon monoxide poisoning doesn't just make you fall down and go to sleep," said Professor Andrew Stolbach, the head of toxicology at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"You can have a big enough concentration at one spot [to knock someone out immediately]," Stolbach admits. "But if it's big enough to knock you out [that quickly], you'd be in a coma."

Radon gas

Radon, a colourless, odourless radioactive gas formed by uranium decay, is another leading theory. Some suspect the gas is being emitted from an old Soviet uranium mine in the nearby area of Krasnogorsk, which has been abandoned for over two decades. But this theory has also been repeatedly rejected as the symptoms don't match up with radiation poisoning. "I am positive this is not radon," said Lukashenko

Psychogenic illness

Mass hysteria is another option being considered by some. "It's common whenever you have [something] difficult to understand, [something] that you can't make a diagnosis for, to [think] maybe it's all in the mind," Dr Kevin Fong told the BBC. "Occasionally that's true, but in medicine, you never, ever, ever make that diagnosis without having excluded everything else first."

Conspiracy theories

In the absence of any concrete evidence, some locals have turned to conspiracy theories such as alien viruses and government experimentation, but officials are appealing for calm and vow to continue the search for a logical, scientific explanation.

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