In March, a story out of Kazakhstan caught the world's attention. In the tiny, remote village, hundreds of residents were falling asleep "without warning" for "days at a time," and waking up with memory loss.
According to reports published by The Siberian Times (boy, that sounds like a dreary news beat), "The ailment has affected hundreds of people living nearby a uranium mine in the Kazakh village of Kalachi," located 250 miles from the capital of Astana.
According to a documentary produced by RT in 2014, the mysterious "plague" comes in waves: March, 2013; May, 2013, early 2014, May, 2014. And most recently in spring 2015. Looking for a cause, doctors and scientists reportedly conducted 7,000 tests on "soil, water, air, patients' blood, hair, nails" — without success. They discontinued underground gas and even turned off local phone towers; they looked for radon gas, high radiation levels, heavy metals in the water and tested for countless bacteria and viruses.
Speaking to The Siberian Times, Dr. Kabdrashit Almagambetov said, "Sadly, the nature of this condition is still not known. We have excluded infections, we checked blood and spine liquid, nothing is there. We categorised it as toxic encephalopathy, but 'toxic' is just a guess here, and encephalopathy is just the title of the set of brain diseases."
Fingers were naturally pointed at the uranium mine, which had once supported a town of 6,500 during the Soviet era. By the time of the sleeping sickness, Kalachi's population was just 680.
Dr. Almagambetov: "I am an anaesthesiologist myself and we use similar gases for anaesthesia but the patients wake up a maximum in one hour after surgery. These people sleep for two to six days, what is the concentration of this gas then? And why one person falls asleep and somebody who lives with him does not?"
Now, an RT documentary news crew has returned to Kalachi, where they found a town with half its residents gone. The other half steadfastly refuses to leave their homes, sleeping plague be damned.
Producers were prompted to revisit the story by news that nine children had fallen asleep simultaneously "after celebrating the start of a new school year." When asked about their spells, the kids reported dizziness and even hallucinations. "He was seeing frogs on the walls," the mother of one boy told the crew. "It was scary to see. I could barely stand it, being in the hospital and watching my son suffer every day."
With an estimated 200 victims in a town of just a few hundred, first-hand accounts weren’t hard to come by. According to one man, “It took me a week to recover! Then I walked like a drunk for a month!”
Indeed, the victims’ problems don’t end once they wake up. Marina Pashkurlat, a local nurse, described the ordeal to the RT news crew. “It looks as if the person’s drunk,” she said. “They talk, answer and all, but don’t remember the first day. You wake them up, they can speak to you, reply to you, but as soon as you stop talking and ask what bothers them, they just want to sleep, sleep, sleep.”
It gets even stranger. According to Kalachi resident Darya Kravchuk, the experience isn’t the same as passing out or blacking out. “You feel like an amoeba,” she said, “as if you’re spreading over this armchair, as if the chair is growing tentacles and they’re pressing on your feet. You don’t see it, but you really feel as if they’re pressing you into this chair. Your legs get feeble, you can’t get up.”
Some continue to blame the uranium mine, speculating that radon gas is, indeed, seeping out of the ground and causing oxygen deprivation, leading to the spells and memory loss. There was also a chemical plant nearby; some blame the careless disposal of lead and other dangerous compounds during Soviet and post-Soviet years.
Resident Igor Samusenko has heard more sinister theories. "They say they’re poisoning us to depreciate the land,” he told RT. “They want to open a mine here to procure gold.”
According to Dr. Almagambetov, “several committees” have come to investigate, but there’s still no answer. “It’s harder for the kids,” he said, “who might have hallucinations, because their brain isn’t fully formed yet.”
When they filmed the first documentary, the RT crew detected radiation levels 17 times normal in the nearby mine itself. In the village, air, soil and water samples seemed normal. During this follow-up visit, the only abnormality found was a slightly elevated lead level in the water. Some radon was found in a few homes, and some residents’ blood showed contained heavy metals. However, according to the report, “experts agree this wasn’t the main reason for the sleep epidemic.”
Speaking on camera, two former heads of the mine outlined their own hypothesis, using a glass Ball jar as a prop:
“Say, a jar is sealed like a mine. If its contents turn sour, a chemical reaction begins [and] air gets in through a tiny hole if it isn’t sealed properly. So a chemical reaction of sorts basically pushes the lid out. Presently it should be like this. Then no gas would leak and there wouldn’t be any sleeping illness.”
But, Victor Kryukov, one of these two former mine administrators, added, “Five million cubic meters of water have been pumped into the mines, and it’s not only uranium that’s involved in this reaction. It could be copper that we left behind, or iron, plus there’s plenty of prop wood, and all of the above could be fermenting. And we can’t tell if the gas that collected over the years are carbon, hydrogen or iron oxides or anything else. It could be anything. But the main culprit could be the inert gas that is 85 percent nitrogen and 15 percent carbon, with no oxygen present.”
If that particular gas is seeping out, it could explain the sleeping sickness. It might also explain the plague’s seeming cycles: Fermentation, as Kryukov described it, is a bubbly kind of chemical reaction that could wax and wane over years. Still, why hasn’t anything been detected by the “several committees” and thousands of tests?
Until the sleeping plague’s cause is identified, Kalachi residents will continue to cope. In the words of one woman, “I fell asleep, what could I do? It’s the eighth time.”
-- Jeff Koyen