Since March 2013, about 140 people in two villages in northern Kazakhstan have been affected by a mysterious sleeping sickness causing them to fall asleep suddenly.
Villagers from Kalachi and Krasnogorsk began falling asleep at random, sometimes while walking or biking. In some cases, victims wake up with memory loss, headaches, weakness, and grogginess. Other sufferers sleep for up to six days for a time.
In 2014, newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported: “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.”
Both young and old were affected by the strange sickness. Allegedly, a cat from the village also showed the same symptoms.
As the epidemic grew, doctors began diagnosing sufferers of “encephalopathy of an unknown origin”, which is a generic term for brain illnesses.
Initially, doctors thought that the symptoms were caused by a counterfeit vodka. When the sickness became more widely spread, many blamed the nearby uranium mines.
The country’s health ministry tested more than 7,000 homes near the uranium mines. Although they didn’t detect significantly high levels of radiation or of heavy metals and their salts, they found increased radium levels in some homes. Still, this wasn’t enough to explain the phenomenon.
After conducting medical examinations on residents, the scientists discovered that the heightened levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in the air actually caused the mysterious sickness.
Berdibek Saparbaev, the country’s deputy prime minister explained: “The uranium mines were closed at some point, and at times a concentration of carbon monoxide occurs there.”
“The oxygen in the air is reduced accordingly, which is the real reason for the sleeping sickness in these villages,” he added.
The authorities have began evacuating 68 of 223 families in the area to prevent further sickness.