Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Explaining Kazakhstan’s Mysterious Sleeping Sickness

The latest theories look to carbon monoxide poisoning to explain Kalachi’s bizarre sleeping sickness.

The villagers of Kalachi say it all began in the spring of 2013. People, seemingly at random, began dozing off, slipping into comas–sometimes for weeks–experiencing dizziness, headaches and nausea. Over 150 cases have been reported, with some people experiencing the illness more than once. The Moscow Times reported a surge in cases through the winter and in January, the government began working to relocate the villagers.

Kalachi is a village in northern Kazakhstan’s Akmola region, roughly 230 miles northwest of the capital, Astana. Its population is between 582 (a figure cited by Interfax and the BBC) and 680 (the number used by the Moscow Times and RFE/RL). Not all of them are willing to relocate.

Viktor Kazachenko, who has lived in Kalachi for more than 40 years, told Eurasianet in March: “I’m not going anywhere…Why should I go? I’ve been here for 40 years. I’m going to die here.”

In January, the governor of the northern Akmola region, Sergey Kulagin, said that all the villagers would be relocated by May. But the Astana Times reported today that as of June 19, only 176 people have been relocated–65 families, including 54 children.

Neighboring districts have offered to take in the people of Kalachi. The heads of nine nearby districts visited the village in January–offering places to live and new jobs. Interfax reported that Saule Agymbayeva, the deputy head of the Esil district where Kalachi is located, said that it is older people who are the most worried about relocating “since jobs are being offered at farms.”

The village’s mayor, Asel Sadvokasova, said the relocations were voluntary but that scientists are still baffled by the sickness. “On this sleeping sickness, we don’t have the results of the studies in our hands yet,” he told Eurasianet.

One theory ties Kalachi’s ailment to the defunct Soviet uranium mine nearby. But the Krasnogorskiy mine closed over two decades ago. A television crew from RT claimed it found radiation levels almost 17 times higher than normal at one filled-in mine shaft, but they found normal levels in other sites closer to the village and quoted a former miner as saying “People worked in mines for so many years, and no one fell asleep.” The Astana Times cited scientists as saying the radiation levels in the area are normal.

The Astana Times reported that preliminary reports from the current investigation point to slightly abnormal levels of carbon monoxide  and hydrocarbon in Kalachi’s air. Sergey Lukashenko, Deputy Director General of Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center, gave an overview of the authorities’ present theory which still contains the mine, but not because of the uranium. After the mine, which contained a number of wooden structures underground, was shut, it was filled with water and “wood in contact with water created carbon monoxide. Then, it started to leak outside the mine gradually to the surface.”

This theory is similar to that of Leonid Rivkhanov, a professor of geological and mineralogical sciences at Tomsk Polytechnic University, who told Siberia Times in February that “the mines left open spaces underground which were slowly filled with water that has risen upwards, driving pockets of gas inside them to the surface.”

Kalachi’s mysterious sleeping sickness and its periodic resurfacing in the international media has led to both global curiosity and wild rumors. Most accounts mention the uranium mine, understandably. The local water and soil, or an illness like meningitis, have been suspected but generally ruled out. At one point in time rumors pointed to bad vodka as the culprit, but doctors dismissed the idea in 2013 when none, out of six people affected at the time, had had any. The Diplomat


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