Imagine living in a town where one out of six people sitting in a restaurant or theater suddenly fall asleep. Imagine these people cannot be woken up and stay in this sleep for up to six days. That’s what’s happening in Kalachi, Kazakhstan, where over 100 of the town’s 680 residents have fallen victim to a mysterious disease even the doctors are comparing to Washington Irving's “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Kalachi is a small village in northern Kazakhstan about 150 miles south of the Russian border. According to a recent documentary produced by RT (Russia Today), it has experienced at least four occurrences of this phenomenon over the past few years. Everyone in the village has a relative who has experienced it and many in Kalachi fear they will fall asleep and never wake up. There is a persistent rumor that an elderly man was buried alive before the epidemic was identified, an ironic tragedy in a town whose name comes from a word that means “white tomb.”
While adults seem to simply pass out suddenly and stay asleep for days, children also suffer from hallucinations, dizziness and memory loss. Doctors, virologists and radiologists have examined the victims for diseases that cause similar symptoms, but none has been isolated as the cause for what’s putting Kalachi to sleep. They’ve ruled out bacterial infections like encephalitis lethargica, parasitic infections and narcolepsy.
Toxicologists hoped they could link the disease to gases from Krasnogorsk, a nearby nearly-abandoned Russian village that was a secret uranium mining town run directly by Moscow during the Soviet era. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the tests were negative.
What is causing the mysterious sleeping sickness in Kalachi? One theory is that the occurrences seem to be linked to sudden rises in temperature, but that has not been substantiated. Another is mass hysteria, not a surprise with the economic and political situation in the area, but again unsubstantiated.
In the meantime, victims remember nothing when they wake up and those who stay awake still live in fear. Until a cause and cure is found, it’s too early for any Rip Van Winkle references.