The Village in Kazakhstan That Can't Stay Awake

Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know (“Learn Something New Every Day, By Email”). To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

The village of Kalachi, Kazakhstan, is located in the center of the country toward the north (here’s a map). It is home to about 600 people, although about half of them are looking to move—before they suddenly fall asleep, perhaps for days at a time.

In the spring of 2013, approximately ten villagers ended up in the hospital, each with a similar set of symptoms—dizziness, memory loss, some loss of motor control.  But there was a stranger symptom common among these ten patients: Many reported conking out during the course of everyday tasks. And this wasn’t just a cat nap nor were these sleeping spells driven by fatigue. The patients simply fell asleep, without warning—and many of them slept for days, unable to be awoken.

The cause was a mystery. Other than the fact that they all lived in the same area, there were few other similarities among the patients. The malady affected both men and women. The patients ranged in age from 14 to 70. Some were students, others worked long hours, and still others had relatively light schedules. If there were any other clues, they went unnoticed—given the size and location of Kalachi, the outside world wasn't initially aware of, and thus, couldn’t send in the teams of researchers who would normally address such public health concerns. And then, in May of 2013, the sleeping sickness abated. Curiosity notwithstanding, any incentive to further explore the cause of these ten hospital visits disappeared.

Until the affliction came back in January of 2014. And then again that May. And again that August.

Increasingly, doctors and researchers have descended on Kalachi, trying to figure out what’s going on. One of the people struck by the August wave, a man named Viktor Kazachenko, spoke to reporters about the ordeal (relayed by The Guardian). On August 28, Kazachenko was driving his motorcycle to a neighboring town, with his wife riding along with him. He woke up in the hospital five days later, without any recollection of the intervening events. While he suffered no injuries from driving a motorbike while asleep—more likely a telling clue about the disease than a miracle—he told the media that he felt disoriented for weeks after he awoke. (His wife was entirely fine.) Kazachenko was probably more prepared for the after-effects of the sleeping sickness than others, because this wasn’t his first bout with the disease. He had previously fallen asleep for three days.

But despite repeat victims and, now, at least four different spells of the sleeping sickness, researchers have almost no idea what is causing this weird plague. As VICE reported, after more than “7,000 tests on patients and the town’s air, food, water, and general environment, no signs of bacterial, viral, chemical, radiological, or any other contamination have been identified.” There’s an old uranium plant which early reports believed could be the source of the trouble, but there is a village located closer to the mine than Kalachi whose residents haven't suffered the same effects. Besides, those living in Kalachi show no symptoms typical of uranium poisoning. At this point, even very rare causes, such as psychosomatic roots (i.e., mass hysteria), have been ruled out for various reasons. The only promising lead? As VICE noted, “outbreaks tend to accord with shifts from cold to warm weather.” But no one knows what, if anything, the temperature change has to do with the problem.

In total, more than 150 people have been struck the Kalachi sleeping sickness, and as the cause hasn’t been identified, there’s no reason to believe that the recurrences will end. Many of Kalachi’s residents are leaving town, hoping to escape whatever is making them and their neighbors fall asleep without explanation. But others want to stay in the only home they know, despite the dangers of contracting the mystery disease.

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Recall Alert: Swiss Rolls And Bread Sold at Walmart and Food Lion Linked to Salmonella
Evan-Amos, Wikimedia Commons // CC 1.0

New items have been added to the list of foods being recalled due to possible salmonella contamination. According to Fox Carolina, snack cakes and bread products produced by Flowers Foods, Inc. have been pulled from stores in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

The baked goods company, based in Georgia, has reason to believe the whey powder it buys from a third-party supplier is tainted with salmonella. The ingredient is added to its Swiss rolls, which are sold under various brands, as well as its Captain John Derst’s Old Fashioned Bread. Popular chains that normally sell Flowers Foods products include Walmart and Food Lion.

The U.S. is in the middle of a salmonella outbreak. In June, Kellogg's recalled Honey Smacks due to contamination and the CDC is still urging consumers to avoid the brand. The cereal has sickened dozens of people since early March. So far, there have been no reported illnesses connected to the potential Flower Foods contamination.

You can find the full list of recalled items below. If you have one of these products in your kitchen, throw it out immediately or return it to the store where you bought it to be reimbursed.

  • Mrs. Freshley's Swiss Rolls
  • H-E-B Swiss Rolls
  • Food Lion Swiss Rolls
  • Baker's Treat Swiss Rolls
  • Market Square Swiss Rolls
  • Great Value Swiss Rolls
  • Captain John Derst's Old Fashioned Bread

[h/t Fox Carolina]

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iStock
97 Percent of Us Are Washing Our Hands All Wrong
iStock
iStock

Most of us know the importance of washing our hands, but we're still pretty clueless when it comes to washing them the right way. As CNN reports, we fall short of washing our hands effectively 97 percent of the time.

That number comes from a new study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that looked at 383 participants in a test-kitchen environment. When they were told to wash their hands, the vast majority of subjects walked away from the sink after less than 20 seconds—the minimum hand-washing time recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of them also failed to dry their hands with a clean towel.

The researchers had participants cooking and handling raw meats. Because they didn't wash their hands properly, volunteers were spreading potentially dangerous germs to spice jars 48 percent of the time, contaminating refrigerator handles 11 percent of the time, and doing the same to salads 5 percent of the time.

People who don't wash their hands the correct way risk spreading harmful microbes to everything they touch, making themselves and those they live with more susceptible to certain infections like gastrointestinal illness and respiratory infections. Luckily, the proper hand-washing protocol isn't that complicated: The biggest change most of us need to make is investing more time.

According to the CDC, you need to rub your hands with soapy water for at least 20 seconds to get rid of harmful bacteria. A helpful trick is to sing "Happy Birthday" twice as you wash—once you're finished, you should have passed the 20-second mark. And if your bathroom or kitchen doesn't have a clean towel to dry your hands with, let them air-dry. 

[h/t CNN]

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