10 Weird Epidemics That Remain A Mystery
In the last 200 years or so, humanity has made great strides in the development of medicine and medical technology. Though a great many diseases and infections are still incurable, we know far more about the science of sickness—the true nature of illness—than at any other time in our history.
Despite this, there are still many plagues and pandemics, both from centuries ago and from the modern era, that confuse or frustrate our understanding of medicine. Some can only be explained as outbreaks of hysteria or mass hallucinations brought on by intense social pressures. Others are even more mysterious, lacking any sort of logic or reason. Here is a list of 10 such plagues, which have baffled and bewildered the doctors of the past and present alike.
10 The Carancas Meteorite Sickness
Close to midnight on a September night in 2007, a meteorite crashed to Earth near the Peruvian border with Bolivia. Named after the town of Carancas, the closest settlement to the impact site, the meteorite terrified those who were close enough to see it.
One man was thrown from his bicycle by the impact, while those farther away witnessed a plume of fire 1,000 meters (3,300 ft) high that followed the meteorite down. But once the dust had settled and the boiling water seeping from the crater had dried up, everyone nearby seemed to be unscathed. Nobody had been truly injured in the impact. Little did they realize that the real hardship was yet to come.
In the aftermath of the crash, hundreds of locals traipsed out to witness the smoldering remains of the meteorite. Within days, as many as 200 of those locals were sick. The symptoms of headaches, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea spread so fast that local doctors were forced to build makeshift tents around the town’s medical center to cope with the influx of suffering patients.
Working out of buildings whose windows had been shattered by the force of the falling meteorite, the doctors toiled for days, trying to establish a cause or an origin for the mysterious plague. No clear answer has ever presented itself. Some scientists, such as Luisa Macedo, have argued that the water unearthed by the impact was contaminated with arsenic and that the “steam” rolling from the crater was actually poisonous gas.
But others, such as the Peruvian Geophysics Institute’s Jose Ishitsuka, have pointed out that it would be highly unlikely that a meteorite would be hot enough to create such a large amount of boiling steam. As it is, we may never know the truth of the Carancas meteorite sickness.
9 The June Bug Epidemic
Here’s an odd one. The June bug epidemic refers to an incident in summer 1962 when a worker in a textile mill in the USA claimed to have been bitten by some sort of dangerous insect. Convinced that the latest batch of fabric that the mill had received from England was infested with creepy critters, the woman refused to go back to work. She complained of headaches, dizziness, and a painful rash. Before long, more than 50 of her colleagues were also insisting that they had been bitten by the elusive “June bug.”
Understandably, the mill was closed down for inspection, and officials from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta were dispatched to deal with the outbreak. But to their surprise, they could find zero evidence that such a creature even existed. The health inspectors found only two biting insects in the entire plant, neither of which could have caused the symptoms described by the workers.
Despite this dumbfounding discovery, they decided to have the mill sprayed for insects anyway. After all, there was nothing else they could do. But the most incredible part of the story is this: After the mill had been sprayed and reopened, not a single person complained of June bug bites again. Was there really something hiding in the fabric?
8 The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic
As it turned out, 1962 was a bad year for mystifying outbreaks. Months earlier, in the tiny village of Kashasha in Tanzania (then known as Tanganyika), an epidemic of laughing attacks struck an all-girls’ boarding school.
It started with just three people and seemed like an ordinary fit of giggling among teenagers. But by the end of the day, a staggering 95 of the school’s pupils were affected, more than half the entire student body. It was January 30, the day the laughing started. By March 30, the school had been shut down completely out of medical concern for its students.
The scariest part of the outbreak was that all of this was only the beginning. After the boarding school was closed, the girls affected were sent away to be housed in different villages. Perhaps the staff thought that by separating those suffering from the laughing attacks, they could stymie the spread of the epidemic. Instead, it multiplied.
By May, 200 people in the nearby settlement of Nshamba were suffering from fits of hysterical laughter, and in June, another 50 in a middle school near Bukoba were stricken. By the time the laughter died down—having infected some people for as long as 16 days—1,000 people or more had been affected, and a total of 14 schools had been closed down. To this day, no true explanation has been offered for this unsettling series of events.
7 The Kalachi Sleeping Sickness
Speaking of tiny villages beset by inexplicable epidemics, let’s talk about Kalachi, a town in the north of Kazakhstan that was plagued by nothing other than contagious tiredness. Starting in 2013, residents of the town began to slip into a state of deep sleep, almost comatose, where they would remain for days at a time.
About one-quarter of the residents of this tiny settlement have suffered at least one bout of sleeping sickness in the last three years, and scientists are no closer to pinning down a definite explanation.
Many potential causes have been considered and cast aside. Professor Leonid Rikhvanov, a Russian scientist specializing in geochemistry, stated in an interview that he believed the answer could be found in an abandoned, Soviet-era uranium mine that lies near the village.
When speaking of the radon gas which fills the mine, Rikhvanov said that it “could be operating as a narcotic substance or an anesthetic. Currently, the underground space of the mine is flooded and gases are being squeezed to the surface.” However, the Kazakh government was far from convinced by such theories. As recently as last year, they began evacuating citizens from Kalachi, having found no other way to combat the sickness.
6 The West Bank Fainting Epidemic
Bad luck if you’re a student—mass hysteria epidemics seem to have a habit of choosing you as their victim. In 1983, a schoolgirl in the Palestinian town of Arrabah found herself coughing uncontrollably and unable to breath. Shortly afterward, she collapsed, unconscious.
Within hours, other girls in the school were following suit, and within weeks, more than 900 people across several different villages on the West Bank were suffering from identical symptoms. But what was the cause?
Wahid Hamdallah, a former mayor hailing from one of the affected towns, believed he had the answer. He announced publicly that the outbreak was a result of poisoning, a deliberate and malicious attack against Palestine that was orchestrated by the Israeli government.
Of course, in the taut atmosphere of the West Bank, this supposed revelation threw the panic into overdrive. Almost 250 people in Jenin began to suffer from the illness after seeing a car drive through the streets emitting thick clouds of black smoke. They were convinced that they were being poisoned.
But when the CDC investigated the school grounds where the disease had originated, they found only a trace amount of hydrogen sulfide, a gas often produced by poorly kept latrines. Could an unclean lavatory in a girls’ school have caused an outbreak which hit hundreds of people? Or was there something else in Arrabah that day?
5 The Kolbigk Dance Of Sin
Though many of the outbreaks on this list have been from the last few decades, the more distant past was by no means free of strange and inexplicable epidemics. For example, you may have heard of the Dancing Plague of 1518. The events took place in 16th-century Strasbourg, a French city then ruled by the Roman Empire.
On a narrow city street, a woman known as Frau Troffea began to dance fervently and without pause. She carried on for almost six days, unable to stop. But when she finally did, the dancing had spread. Within a week, nearly 40 people were uncontrollably dancing in the street. By the end of the month, as many as 400 people were taking part in this remarkable outbreak and dozens had died from exhaustion or exposure.
However, what you may not have realized is that this famous incident is far from a unique case. Plagues of this nature have been recorded as far back as 1021. That’s when a group of 18 people in the German town of Kolbigk began to dance and chant uncontrollably outside of their church, preventing the local priest from performing his duties.
Furious at their behavior, the priest reportedly cursed the afflicted villagers, claiming that they performed “the dance of sin.” Though fewer people were affected by this outbreak, it lasted far longer—almost an entire year! The scariest thing is that we still don’t really know what caused these dancing plagues.
4 The Pokemon Shock
This is a weird one. In 1997, nearly 700 Japanese children were rushed to hospitals after the broadcast of “Denno Senshi Porygon,” an episode of the popular Pokemon cartoon. This particular event—now referred to in Japan as “Pokemon Shock”—was believed to have been caused by flashing lights and repetitive patterns that were shown during the episode. Experts suspected that this caused epileptic fits in many of the suffering children.
Though it seems ridiculous to claim that a television program could have made people sick, this is actually more common than many people realize. Another example would be the Portuguese soap opera Morangos com Acucar (“Strawberries with Sugar”). In 2006, the show aired an episode in which a potentially deadly virus spread through the characters’ school.
Not long after, viewers of the show began to exhibit symptoms matching those of the fictional virus in the show. This baffled medical experts because it was almost as if the disease had spread from Morangos com Acucar into the real world. These two cases demonstrate how television can be much more dangerous than we realize, especially when science struggles to explain those dangers.
3 The Picardy Sweat
You may have already heard of sweating sickness (aka sudor anglicus in France), a peculiar disease found in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. A great many symptoms were attributed to this outbreak, which affected thousands of individuals.
Everything from paranoia to paralysis was considered a sign of this mysterious illness, which physicians of the time believed had been brought to England by French mercenaries during the War of the Roses. Unlike some of the epidemics mentioned in this list, the sweating sickness was truly deadly, with a mortality rate of almost 50 percent.
What you may not know about this outbreak, however, was that it disappeared and was later resurrected. After a series of prominent sicknesses in the late 1500s, the virus began to vanish rapidly. By 1578, it was completely absent everywhere, having left no trace and no evidence as to what had caused it.
And yet, well over 100 years later, in the Picardy region of France, the sweating sickness returned in earnest. It was immediately apparent that it was the same disease. Medical expert Henry Tidy said that he could find “no substantial reason to doubt the identity of sudor anglicus and Picardy sweat.”
This time, the sickness stuck around until the end of World War I, with a particularly nasty outbreak infecting 6,000 people in 1906. After that, it disappeared from the world once again. With this sickness still a mystery, we had better hope it stays vanished.
2 The Nodding Syndrome
Capable of causing both physical and mental disabilities, the nodding disease is a fearsome epidemic characterized by the seizures suffered by its victims. They are forced to nod their heads convulsively, the spasms so severe that it prevents the infected person from eating or sleeping.
First identified in 1962—of course—the syndrome is currently present in South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, where serious outbreaks have occurred as recently as 2012. Such was the extent of the problem that Doctor Anthony Mbonye, Uganda’s commissioner for health services, opened a series of clinics designed specifically to deal with sufferers of this odd illness.
Though the seizures are uncomfortable and frightening, the true damage of nodding syndrome comes from the stunting of growth. Once victims are infected, they are permanently and completely stunted, both in body and mind. As the disease primarily affects children between the ages of five and 15, this can lead to truly life-altering handicaps for the sufferers.
Though doctors are still far from understanding the cause of the disease, there is some hope. Scientists believe that a link between the syndrome and a species of parasitic worm that is common in the affected areas may provide a possible answer. For now, however, there is no real evidence—and no real cure.
In 1886, a man named Jean-Albert Dadas was admitted to a hospital in Bordeaux, physically exhausted and with no memory of how he had gotten there. For most people, it would have been a terrifying event, but for Dadas, this was more or less ordinary.
He often found himself waking up from a fugue, having walked hundreds of miles without realizing it. Once in 1881, he awoke to find that he had walked from France to Russia. Dadas, you see, was a sufferer of dromomania—an inexplicable disease classified as “an uncontrollable desire to travel or wander.”
Sometimes referred to as “pathological tourism” in more recent years, dromomania was a brief and inexplicable epidemic that struck France in the late 19th century. Fascinatingly, the disease vanished just as medical professionals were preparing to study it.
At a psychiatric conference in Nantes in 1909, various academics tried to rationalize the sickness, presenting six or seven different conditions that they believed were the cause of dromomania. The last case of the disease was reported mere months later despite the fact that no actual explanation or cure had been found at the conference. This is a mystery which remains unresolved to this day.
Alex Smith is currently studying English literature and creative writing at Lancaster University in England. He hopes to use the skills acquired during his studies to write excessive amounts of listicles.