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Kazakhstan Thinks It Finally Figured Out the Source of That Weird Sleeping Sickness

The government believes the culprit was carbon monoxide from uranium mines in the area.
Someone asleep who is not a villager in Kazakhstan. Photo by Flickr user Alex Bellink

Someone asleep who is not a villager in Kazakhstan. Photo by Flickr user Alex Bellink

Read: Officials Are Evacuating the City in Kazakhstan Where Villagers Fall Asleep At Random

For years, residents of remote villages in Kazakhstan have been plagued by a mysterious sleeping illness, causing more than 140 villagers to fall asleep at random, sometimes for up to six days at a time. No one could provide a solid explanation of exactly what in the hell was happening, until now.

Last week, Kazakhstan's Deputy Prime Minister Berdibek Saparbaev announced what he believes to be the cause of the real-life Rip Van Winkle epidemic: Uranium mines, which had been closed in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. According to the government, the mines had raised carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in the air, the Guardian reports.

The uranium mines had been suggested as a cause of the sleeping sickness earlier, but when Kazakhstan's health ministry tested nearby homes, they didn't find any evidence of radiation from the mines. More strangely, blood tests of affected people came back without signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Without an official explanation, most people who suffered the illness were diagnosed with "encephalopathy of unclear origin," which basically means "there is something wrong with your brain, but we have no fucking clue what it is." Some suspected that the mass sleeping was a form of mass psychosis, and others suggested that it was caused by a bad batch of vodka.

The population of the towns is only 810 people, so the 140 sufferers represent about 17 percent of the population. The strange condition affected young and old alike; even the governor of one small town was hospitalized for abruptly falling asleep. Upon waking, people reported memory loss, confusion, and hallucinations.

Although it's still unclear how the inactive mines were producing such widespread, toxic levels of carbon monoxide, the government is making strides to evacuate the villagers. Officials began moving families in late January; the Guardian reported that authorities have relocated 68 out of 223 families so far.