The Sleeping Sickness Epidemic: a strange disease that turned people into living zombies

The Sleeping Sickness Epidemic: a strange disease that turned people into living zombies

Categories: Health and Medicine | History

At the end of the First World War, the world was gripped by a terrible attack. It was called sleeping sickness, otherwise-lethargic encephalitis. Millions of people around the world with their symptoms put doctors in front of an unsolvable riddle. Some died, others became living statues, trapped in their bodies.

The Sleeping Sickness Epidemic: a strange disease that turned people into living zombies

For the past hundred years, the best minds have tried to explain this phenomenon and develop a cure, but until now, the "sleep virus" remains one of the biggest mysteries of history.

This disease rapidly spread across the planet at the same time as the Spanish flu, which, in turn, killed 50 million people. This largely explains the fact that the disease, which killed 50 times fewer people, caused less interest.

Despite the fact that we know about most of the cases from the period when the First World War ended, it is believed that the epidemic began much earlier — in 1915-1916. The first" victims " of the disease were soldiers. At first, the doctors decided that the cause of their unusual symptoms was mustard gas, which was actively used during the war. But later, civilians began to get infected, and the doctors had to admit that it wasn't the gas.

The Sleeping Sickness Epidemic: a strange disease that turned people into living zombies

Konstantin von Economo

The disease was first described in 1917 by the Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Konstantin von Economo. He called it " lethargic encephalitis."»:

The Sleeping Sickness Epidemic: a strange disease that turned people into living zombies

The terrible thing is that the disease did not have the same symptoms — it, like a multi‑headed hydra, manifested itself in different ways.

A few years after von Economo published his observations, a terrifying epidemic began to visit one house after another, taking the lives of some and leaving the immobilized bodies of others.

About one-third of those infected died, and about 20% needed professional care for the rest of their lives. Less than one-third of the patients made a full recovery.

The Sleeping Sickness Epidemic: a strange disease that turned people into living zombies

The disease affected people of all ages, but the most vulnerable were people between 15 and 35 years old. The very first symptoms of the disease were almost identical to the common cold: high fever, headache, fatigue and runny nose. At first, it never occurred to anyone that what they were facing was much more dangerous.

The Sleeping Sickness Epidemic: a strange disease that turned people into living zombies

During the autopsies, von Economo determined that the cause of death was an affected hypothalamus. This is a small part of the brain that is responsible for a huge variety of human functions, including sleep. Inflammation of the hypothalamus due to infection led to damage to this area of the brain,which became the cause of death. But the causative agent of epidemic encephalitis has not been isolated. They assume it's a virus.

And although the epidemic has never occurred again, the disease can strike again at any time. Virologist John Oxford is sure that the game is not over yet: 

Keywords: Health and medicine | History | Zombies | Disease | Sleep

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