Brain and Body

The Mystery of the Kazakhstan Sleep Sickness Epidemic

September 16, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Young man sleeping over the steering wheel.
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Over the past five years, hundreds of people have fallen victim to a mysterious sleeping sickness spreading in a small town in Kazakhstan, leaving experts at a loss for words.

The mystery plague in Krasnogorsk, a small mining region in Kazakhstan, surfaced in April 2010, claiming its first victim, Lyubov (Lyuba) Belkoba. While exchanging the usual morning gossip with friends, she suddenly slumped over in her seat, head down. Her pulse was normal, but she wasn’t responding. She woke up in the hospital four days later with no memory of what happened. This would mark the beginning of an unexplainable phenomena that swept the town.

Children, teenagers, and adults began to fall ill to the strange symptoms: falling into a deep sleep, snoring heavily, and remembering nothing when waking up days later. Was it drugs? Homemade brews gone wrong? Strokes? The village buzzed with rumors.

Scientists swooped in with sample tubes and test machines. Journalists flocked to the area. Government officials paraded around, making empty promises to organize relocation for the villagers. But no one could figure out what was causing the strange sleeping sickness or how to cure it.

The symptoms only seemed to intensify. In a horrifying incident in September 2014, eight children suffered from vivid hallucinations, laughter, weeping, and nausea while falling in and out of sleep. One child had to be held down by teachers until his mother came, claiming he saw a refrigerator on the ceiling and hobbits and elephants everywhere.

Rumors continued to spread. Some people claimed the government found gold under the town and wanted the people out, so they were poisoning the villagers. Since there was a uranium mine 2 miles away, many people were suspicious it had something to do with that. Others said the government wanted to turn the town into a resort for wealthy people. Some even insisted they saw ghosts or UFOs.

Perhaps one of the stranger details of the case is that some relatives of the villagers would fall sick to the sleeping disease while visiting, but no official outsider ever did. No journalists, no scientists, and no local government officials were ever affected.

On July 10, reports published by Kazakhstani officials attributed the illness to carbon monoxide and a lack of oxygen. While the explanation could fit, Kazakhstan’s own health ministry reported that the people who had suffered from the sleeping sickness had tested negative for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Sergey Lukashenko, the director of the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, told Buzzfeed that the carbon monoxide theory was still just a working theory, but would hopefully be confirmed by the end of the year. Nevertheless, the explanation would still leave many strange details unanswered.

Since Kazakhstan’s best doctors found nothing physically wrong with the people, and there’s still no definitive correlation between the environment and the symptoms, the only remaining explanation seems to be mass psychogenic illness (MPI), also known as mass hysteria. MPI occurs when long-term anxiety is converted into physical symptoms like uncontrollable laughter, weeping, twitching, and so on. The symptoms build slowly, and can last for years.

MPI tends to happen when people witness or hear about a strange incident, and the symptoms seemingly spread. It’s common in closed communities, schools, and factories, and often involve an outside stressor, which in this case would be the uranium mine.

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who specializes in MPI at Botany Downs Secondary College in New Zealand, explains, “They are experiencing symptoms, they are not made up — but they are not triggered by the radiation, they are triggered by anxiety.”

Since no cause has been credibly verified yet, the mystery of the sleeping plague lives on. However, if the explanation lies in the psychological effects of mass hysteria, it wouldn’t be the first time the human brain has baffled scientists — and it won’t be the last.


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