The Mystery Behind a Kazakh Town’s Sleeping Sickness

In 2013, the residents of Kalachi, a small village in Kazakhstan, began to take to their beds with a mysterious illness. They couldn’t stop falling asleep. When they woke up, often days later, they remembered nothing. Newspapers (and mental_floss) called it a “sleeping sickness” (unrelated to the African sleeping sickness transmitted by flies) and multiple investigations into the causes—patients’ ages and schedules, the town’s air quality, the food and water people were consuming—turned up nothing. But after years of study, the Kazakh government thinks it has figured out the underlying cause of the outbreak. Maybe. 

The first reported case of the sleeping sickness came in 2010, in a neighboring village. In 2013, the mystery took on new urgency as eight different people from Kalachi (a town of just 640) fell asleep over one weekend, unable to stay awake for any longer than it took to go to the bathroom or eat a little food.

When these otherwise healthy adults finally awoke from their trances, they didn’t remember anything that had happened, even the times when they had seemed awake enough to eat or talk or have a cigarette, as BuzzFeed reported during a week-long investigative trip to the region. One man even woke up in the Kazakh capital of Astana, unable to remember being on the plane that brought him there. People felt nauseous and dizzy; they hallucinated, ranting about images only they could see and at times becoming borderline violent. More than 100 people fell ill at some point. Even a cat was affected. 

This happened again and again over the course of several months, with waves of residents falling prey to the sickness in the beginning of 2014, then later that spring, then again that summer. The nearby uranium mines were a likely culprit, and scientists tested the earth, water, and local food for radon, a gas known to cause cancer. The air was tested for carbon monoxide. People’s hair and fingernails were tested for radiation. Doctors could find nothing wrong with the patients, and no factors to tie them all together. 

Were people being poisoned? Or was it just a case of mass psychogenic illness (essentially mass hysteria), like the “dancing plague” or the numerous population-wide panics throughout history over shrinking penises?

Finally, in the summer of 2015, authorities announced that they had discovered the culprit: high concentrations of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons coming from the mines caused a lack of oxygen in the air in the area. By the time the announcement came in the summer of 2015, 150 people had already moved away, while another 240 were on a list of people seeking resettlement. Still, a radiologist who had been studying the outbreak told BuzzFeed that the verdict was “only the working theory,” and that researchers were still studying the medical anomaly. In late December of that year, scientists from the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan confirmed this explanation.

What’s the Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?

The odds are pretty good that you know someone with diabetes. Affecting more than 30 million Americans, it's an incredibly common—and commonly misunderstood—condition.

The word diabetes comes from the Greek for "siphon"—a reference to the frequent and copious urination the condition can cause. The term was coined in the first century by ancient physician Aretaeus the Cappadocian, who vividly (and inaccurately) described the theory that "great masses of flesh are liquefied into urine."

Today we know a bit more about this illness, what causes it, and the forms it can take.

Diabetes is ultimately a hormone problem. The hormone in question is insulin, which helps the body convert glucose (sugar) into energy. Your pancreas releases a little dose of insulin into your bloodstream when you eat. The insulin tells certain cells to gobble up the glucose you've just added. The cells take in the sugar and put it to work.

Or at least that's how it's supposed to go. If you've got diabetes, the situation looks a little different.

Like rheumatoid arthritis or celiac disease, type 1 diabetes is the result of a person being attacked by their own immune system. In rheumatoid arthritis, the issue manifests in the joints; in celiac disease, it occurs in the gut; and in type 1 diabetes, it's the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas that are targeted by the immune system.

Little fluctuations in blood sugar that would breeze right through a healthy system can wreak havoc in the body of someone with type 1. People with type 1 must keep a very close eye on their glucose levels and take supplemental insulin, in shots or through a pen, port, pump, or inhaler, as blood sugar that goes too low or too high can cause serious complications and even death.

Type 2 diabetes is caused by an obstacle at the other end of the road. Someone with type 2 diabetes typically may have enough insulin to function, at least to start; the problem is that their body can't process it. Unused glucose builds up in the bloodstream and the body begins to need more and more insulin to see any effect.

Type 2 used to be known as adult-onset diabetes and type 1 as juvenile diabetes, but both kids and adults can and do develop both types. And while being overweight or obese does increase a person's risk of developing diabetes, thin people get it too. To complicate matters even further, researchers in Finland and Sweden recently identified five subgroups of diabetes, each with its own unique characteristics and risks for complications. Knowing which subgroup people fall into may improve treatment in the future.

And while we're myth-busting: The idea that diabetes is the product of eating too much sugar is a gross oversimplification. How you eat affects your body, of course, and a low-carb diet can help keep blood sugar in check, but diabetes can be caused by a lot of different factors, including genetics, medications, and other health conditions. (If you're on insulin, talk to a doctor before starting a low-carb diet, as low blood glucose levels can result if not done carefully.)

There's no common cure for diabetes—at least not yet. An artificial pancreas and other treatments for the immune system and pancreas cells are all in the works. In the meantime, both types can usually be managed with medication, diet changes, exercise, and a lot of doctor visits.

The Colorful Kit Helping Diabetic Kids Manage Their Injections With Temporary Tattoos

No kid looks forward to getting their shots, but for children living with type 1 diabetes, insulin injections are a part of everyday life. When Renata Souza Luque, a graduate from the Parsons School of Design in New York, saw how much of a toll the routine was taking on her 7-year-old cousin Thomas, she designed a product to make the process a little easier for kids like him. The result, Thomy, is a tool kit that aims to make insulin injections less intimidating to young diabetics, as Dezeen reports.

The brightly colored, easy-to-carry kit is designed for ages 4 and up, with an insulin pen specifically made to fit in a child’s hand. In addition to being easier for kids to hold and use, the Thomy pen is designed to be more fun than your average insulin injector. It has a thermochromic release valve, so that when it touches the patient’s skin, it begins to change color. The color-morphing doesn’t serve any medical purpose, but it provides kids with a distraction as they’re receiving the injection.

A purple insulin pen in an orange case
Renata Souza Luque

The kit also includes playful temporary tattoos to help kids figure out where their injections should go. Diabetics need to change the site of their injections regularly to prevent lumps of fat from developing under the skin, and for patients injecting themselves multiple times a day, keeping track of specific spots can be difficult. Kids can apply one of Thomy's temporary tattoos over their injection sites as a map for their shots. Each time they need an injection, they wipe off one of the tattoo's colored dots with alcohol and insert the needle in its place. When all the dots are gone, it's time to move on to a new area of the skin.

A child wipes at a temporary tattoo on his abdomen with a cloth.
Renata Souza Luque

Souza Luque originally created Thomy for her senior capstone project, and last year it was named a national finalist at the James Dyson Awards. Most recently, she presented the concept at the Design Indaba conference in Cape Town in late February.

[h/t Dezeen]


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