Why the Village That Falls Asleep for Weeks at a Time Has Researchers Baffled

The residents of Kalachi, a small town in Kazakhstan, have been experiencing a disturbing trend for some time now — the townspeople can’t help but fall asleep for days, or even weeks at a time. The sleeping bouts remain unexplained, but the issue is hotly contested even as the Kazakh government relocates residents, sometimes forcefully.

The Guardian reports on one incident:

One day last summer, Viktor Kazachenko set off across the steppe from his village in northern Kazakhstan. He was driving to the nearest town on some errands, but he never arrived.

“My brain switched off,” he says. “That’s it. I don’t remember.” Kazachenko had been hit by the so-called “sleeping sickness” that is plaguing Kalachi, a remote village about 300 miles west of the country’s capital Astana.

After this incident, the second lengthy slumber he experienced, Kazachenko noticed his blood pressure shooting to higher rates and an increased predisposition for headaches. Other symptoms of the sleep residents have reported include dizziness, nausea and memory loss.

The ailment began in the spring of 2013 and has since affected 120 residents with 152 bouts of sudden sleepiness. Doctors and scientists investigating the phenomenon remain baffled, though they’ve tested for everything from increased radiation to a high concentration of heavy metal salts. The many factors have so far been ruled out as causes.

Sergey Lukashenko, the director of the National Nuclear Centre’s institute for radiation security, acknowledge in January that increased levels of carbon monoxide in many homes may be a contributing factor. Despite the fascination around the world, the Kazakh government remains relatively uninvolved in the issue. From the Guardian:

Kazakhstan’s government has said the village is on the “personal radar” of president Nursultan Nazarbayev, and prime minister Karim Masimov has set up a commission to coordinate the research: by the end of last year over 20,000 laboratory and clinical test had been conducted – on the air, soil, water, food, animals, building materials, and on the residents themselves. The tests are ongoing.

Local officials have turned to the international medical community for help solving this mystery. No luck so far, but not from lack of effort.

With little scientific fact to point to, many residents are speculating the disease is caused by a discarded Soviet uranium mine located near the village. The Krasnogorskiy mine was once used by Soviet officials to help make nuclear weapons, but the site and the surrounding town of same name have become increasingly abandoned since its closure in the 1990s.

The villagers live in fear of falling asleep. Regional authorities are pushing for a controversial mass relocation to escape the phenomenon. Authorities have already relocated about 100 residents of Kalachi, though the town’s mayor acknowledges many villagers don’t want to move, which is why it’s on a voluntary basis for now.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Kazachenko. “Why should I go? I’ve been here for 40 years. I’m going to die here.”

“They say it affects the brain; they say it gives people headaches,” said his wife, Raisa Kazachenko, “but our headache now is where we’re being resettled.”