Villagers in a remote settlements in the Akmola region of Kazakhstan have been falling asleep while standing up, while walking, and even while riding motorcycles. The identity of the illness, which has been described as an encephalopathy of an unknown origin, has drawn experts to Kalachi and Krasnogorsk ever since March 2013 when symptoms began to rage. While scientists believe they may have discovered the cause, there is still some doubt as to how the disease affects the some 140 of the 810 people who live in the area. Sufferers complain of falling asleep at inappropriate times, and then waking up with memory loss, grogginess, headaches and fatigue. Some of the victims have been felled more than six times, and have remained asleep for nearly a week. Most of the people in the area are ethnic Russians and Germans.
While the symptoms were first reported in the spring of 2013, the Moscow Times reported that the cases appeared to spike in the winter.
According to a 2014 report by the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, “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.” Young and old residents are being felled by the dreaded sleeping sickness. Even children have suddenly fallen asleep at school. Dogs and cats have also been affected. The newspaper reported that two children reported having vivid and terrifying hallucinations in which they saw snakes in their beds, vermin eating their hands, and winged horses on high. One resident told the Vremya newspaper that her cat apparently went crazy one night and began meowing before attacking furniture and the family dog. At least one-tenth of the human population has been affected.
As doctors examined patients, their symptoms defied medical explanations. Some theorized that the sleepers of Kalachi and Krasnogorsk may have imbibed an illicit form of alcohol that caused the ailement. However, the epidemic grew and defied the alcohol theory. Meningitis was also ruled out.
Before long, residents began to suspect that noxious vapors emitted by nearby defunct uranium mines might be the culprit. The mines were closed upon the fall of the Soviet Union, thus turning Krasnogorsk into a near ghost town. While it once boasted 6,500 residents, the current populations hovers at around 130. When the government of Kazakhstan tested more than 7,000 homes in the vicinity, no elevated levels of radiation, heavy metals or their salts were discovered. While the health ministry did find raised radium levels in some homes, there was not enough to offer an explanation for the sleeping sickness.
According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, some sleep experts suggested in 2014 that the two villages were suffering from a case of mass psychosis. This was likened to the so-called “Bin Laden itch,” which has been described as psychosomatic rash afflicting children in the United States following the 911 terrorist attacks.
Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister, Berdibek Saparbaev, has claimed since then that researchers have now concluded that the feared sleeping sickness has been caused by high levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in the air they breathe. According to the politician, “The uranium mines were closed at some point, and at times a concentration of carbon monoxide occurs there,” who added, “The oxygen in the air is reduced accordingly, which is the real reason for the sleeping sickness in these villages.”
(The wife of Aleksandr Pavlychenko watches as he sleeps for the second time under the effects of the disease)
The government has decided to evacuate all persons living in the two villages. So far, 68 of 223 families have been re-located.
The mystery continues
According to a report in Wired.com, a U.S. expert said that while the symptoms do match the gases cited by the Kazakh authorities, it is unlikely that these gases would gather in concentrations high enough to affect people in open places. It is also unlikely that carbon monoxide would be emitted by an inactive mine.
Other gases may share the blame. Carbon dioxide, which occurs naturally, is difficult to detect could be a factor. Also, hydrocarbons in the form of methane may be another causative factor. Whether or not any of these gases are present in a form sufficient to cause the sleeping sickness is yet to be determined.
It’s possible that other gases, like carbon dioxide, could be to blame, as it occurs naturally in our environment and is tough to detect. And hydrocarbons that could be in the form of methane gas appear to be escaping from the mine, though the question remains of how such a gas is concentrated enough to cause these symptoms.
Pious Christians in Russia and Kazakhstan have compared the recent bout of sleeping sickness with the story of the Seven Holy Sleepers. According to Christian tradition, the Seven Sleepers (Arabic: اصحاب الکھف aṣḥāb al kahf, "companions of the cave") were a group of youths who hid inside a cave outside the city of Ephesus around 250 AD, to escape persecution during the reign of the Emperor Decius. Authorities then sealed them up in the cave, having believed that they would die as martyrs there. However, the sleepers awoke 180 years later during the reign of Theodosius II, following which they were reportedly seen by the people of the now-Christian city before dying. Ephesus, which lies in what is now modern Turkey, is also the place where the Virgin Mary was purportedly assumed into heaven immediately upon death.