An inexplicable sleeping sickness is affecting one in ten residents of a village in Kazakhstan in Russia.
Villagers in Kalachi have been affected by the mysterious disease for the past two years, but to date, no cause for the illness has been determined and, despite teams of virologists, radiologists, toxicologists and doctors collaborating to solve the mystery, they have been unable to find a cure.
The sickness has affected members of every single family in the area, with over 100 people suffering the strange symptom so far, often with repeated attacks.Some of the afflicted residents have slept for up to a week, and there are growing fears that some of the sufferers may not wake up.There does not seem to be any common denominator to link cases, as the disease strikes old and young indiscriminately. In one school, eight children fell to sleep within the space of an hour during class.
"If you try to wake him, it seems he wants to open his eyes – but can’t. He’s sleeping and sleeping…" said Igor Samusenko, the father of one child suffering from the illness.
The sickness often fells groups of people at a time; in one incident, twenty people fell to sleep at the same time, and on another disturbing occasion, sixty residents collapsed in a mass slumber, with medics having to line the sleeping patients up in rows.
Sleeping is not the only symptom of the strange disease: people have also suffered from hallucinations, memory loss, dizziness, and nausea.
"I’m weak, my legs feel heavy, as if I’m wearing a hundred pairs of boots, and my head is spinning," one woman described her symptoms. Other patients behave "like they’re drunk." It’s difficult to warn others and ask for help, as "your tongue gets twisted."
Some victims have also suffered ischemic strokes, and in some of the affected children, encephalopathy manifesting as excessive fluid on their brains – known as oedema, has been found though its cause was unknown.
Kair Abdurakhmanov, a senior doctor at the Regional Children’s Hospital, said: ‘All the kids had a CT scan. There’s a diffuse brain oedema, but there’s no deterioration in terms of neurological symptoms.
‘There is no signs of meningitis.’
In the search for an explanation, pollution from a local mine has been blamed, where it is thought that uranium used to be mined. But villagers are not convinced, as the mine has been closed for twenty years, and there are no houses nearby. "People worked in mines for so many years, and no one fell asleep," commented former miners.
Nor is sleepiness a classic symptom of radiation poisoning, say doctors, and radiation levels in the town have been tested and found to be within normal levels. Samples of Kalachi’s water, soil, and vegetation have also been tested and found to be normal. A investigative team from the news site RT.com conducted their own test closer to the mine, however, and did find radiation levels at a disturbingly high 268 micro-roentgen per hour at an abandoned filled-in shaft mine some distance from the village.
There are fears that unknown substances or toxic waste may be stored in the derelict mine, as Alsu Shjeladeva, a local resident, said some villagers had gone down one of the shafts and detected a sweet smell down there.
‘We are afraid of what lies in store," said Alsu. " We’re afraid that we may all fall asleep.’