After years of investigation, government researchers have finally announced what they believe to be the cause of a bizarre epidemic of sleeping sickness striking the residents of two villages on the border between Russian and Kazakhstan: high levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in the atmosphere.
Since 2013, over two hundred villagers, most of whom are ethnic Russians and Germans, have been falling asleep unexpectedly, in some cases while they were at work, and lapsing into comas that would last for days. Even after waking up, they often reported memory loss, grogginess, general weakness, and headache pain. Some villagers have fallen asleep up to half a dozen times though medical experts ruled out any lasting physical problems. The sleeping epidemic is believed to occur in waves which often occur every few weeks and affected people of all ages. Even animals have been affected by the epidemic, including pets and livestock.
Doctors examining sleeping sickness victims initially believed it was due to vodka poisoning but later changed their diagnosis to "encephalopathy of an unknown nature", a catch-all term for brain disease. While an abandoned uranium mine near the two villages is the presumed cause of the epidemic, epidemiologists conducted thousands of tests and ruled out radon gas leakage, infection, and contamination of the local water supply. Some authorities even suggested that the epidemic was a form of psychogenic disease (i.e., mass hysteria). The mystery has been deepened by the lack of any real pattern to the cases with some people being affected while others living in the same house being symptom-free.
As for the villagers themselves, the bizarre sleeping epidemic is only the latest episode in the long saga affecting the region. The uranium mine was once the industrial heart of both villages and its closure has led to thousands of residents moving away to find work elsewhere. The uncertainty over the cause of the sleeping sickness has left many villagers uncertain about their future and some even keep emergency bags packed in case they need to go to the hospital.
It was only recently that researchers concluded that the cases of sleeping sickness were being caused by elevated levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in the air. According to Kazakhstan Deputy Prime Minister, Berdibek Saparbaev, the uranium mines have proven to be the culprit after all. “The uranium mines were closed at some point, and at times a concentration of carbon monoxide occurs there,” Saparbaev said. “The oxygen in the air is reduced accordingly, which is the real reason for the sleeping sickness in these villages.”
Given the health hazard posed by the gas emissions from the mines, both villages are being evacuated with all families to be relocated elsewhere. So far, sixty-eight of the two hundred and twenty three families affected have already been located. At this time, it remains unclear whether the evacuated villagers will ever be able to return to the homes where they have lived for decades.