Alongside the daily struggle of various diseases and disorders, doctors also have to deal with some unusual medical conditions that affected a large number of the population, which puzzled them as to the cause of those conditions.

Below are some of the medical mysteries that were eventually solved.

1. The mysterious sleeping sickness

In a remote village of Kalachi in Kazakhstan, a mysterious illness sent residents into a coma-like sleep, sometimes for weeks on end, at the drop of a hat. Citizens first began inexplicably falling asleep in 2013, and since then more than 200 people have been affected in a population of only 810.

The illness itself resulted in serious health implications such as dizziness, nausea, blinding headaches and memory loss. Many had been affected by it more than once.

The ‘sleeping sickness’ baffled doctors and scientists for three years. The town is home to a defunct, soviet-era uranium mine, which, many had suspected was the cause. However, Kazakhstan’s health ministry tested more than 7,000 nearby homes for high levels of radiation and heavy metals as well as salts, but found none.

It was eventually discovered that the mines were the cause - heightened levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons that were being released from it had reduced the oxygen in the air.

2. The great smog of London

About half as many Londoners died from the Great Smog as did from bombs during WWII. Piccadilly Circus, London (1952). Photo credit: LCC Photograph Library/ London Metropolitan Archives Collection
About half as many Londoners died from the Great Smog as did from bombs during WWII. Piccadilly Circus, London (1952). Photo credit: LCC Photograph Library/ London Metropolitan Archives Collection

In 1952, the British capital London was affected by a deep fog that lasted five days. The smog had caused a major disruption due to reduced visibility and had even penetrated indoor areas, far more severe than previous fog events experienced in the past.

The country was ground to a standstill, with more than 4,000 people losing their lives, although scientists now estimate that the figure was probably closer to 12,000. As the world’s first major smog caused widespread death and despair to the population, authorities were initially baffled as to the cause.

It was later discovered that the increasing coal combustion, primarily for residential heating and cooking, as well as heavy industrialisation were the culprit. The coal’s sulphur content was substantial and its combustion generated sulphur oxides, thus, acidic particles from the chemical transformations of these gases choked citizens.

The Great Fog began the worldwide practice of epidemiological research on air pollution, population-based studies, assessment of respiratory symptoms with questionnaires and lung function testing.

3. The Bin Laden Itch

In October 2001, thousands of children – mostly girls – in schools across the United States broke out in a mysterious, itchy rash. So extensive was the rash that some schools were closed and emergency meetings were held with dermatologists, epidemiologists, environmentalists and scientists at the Centres for Disease Control.

Viruses, pesticides, moldy spores and children’s favourites such as stick-on tattoos, fruity lotions and glitter were among those that were tested, but to no avail. People were terrified that it was a form of bioterrorism enacted by Al-Qaeda. The truth, however, was very different.

The students were suffering from psychological contagion or mass hysteria due to fear of an eminent attack by Osama Bin Laden, following the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, which had occurred just a month earlier. Short-term somatic reactions such as rashes are an extremely common psychogenic phenomenon.

With the idea of bioterrorism highly prevalent, school children were examining their skin more closely and nurses were reporting more cases than ever. Ultimately, it took a year for the hysteria to subside. MIMS

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