Ongoing Sleeping Sickness Investigation Intensifies

ASTANA – Per the instructions of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Deputy Prime Minister Berdibek Saparbayev paid a visit to the Yessil and Zharkainsky districts June 25, where the village of Kalachi, also known as “Sleepy Hollow Village,” is located.

Quite obviously, Saparbayev’s focus was on the buzzed-around-the-world sleeping sickness, a mystery which scientists have yet to unravel.

The villagers of Kalachi randomly fall asleep, at times for hours, in worst cases for weeks, and when awakened feel lethargic and powerless. Some individuals even experience a short-term memory loss. The syndrome has been unofficially linked to a nearby ex-Soviet uranium mine and numerous examinations and tests have been conducted to identify the cause of the mysterious disorder.

In order to conduct an independent investigation of the radio-ecological research, the results have been sent to the Prague Institute of Radiation Protection, the Federal Medical-Biological Agency of Moscow and the All-Russian Research and Development Institute of Radiology and Agroecology in Obninsk.

The Kazakh Ministry of Energy continuously monitors the air pollution using a mobile environmental laboratory equipped with a dosimetre to determine the level of radiation, as well as an automatic gas analyser. The government has allocated 379 million tenge (US$2 million) to continue the research.

Local authorities are making efforts to aid the residents; as of June 19, 65 families (176 people, including 54 children) have been relocated. Medical assistance is under special control for patients who have suffered from the illness.

As reported earlier by The Astana Times, scientists tried to link the condition to a nearby, closed Soviet uranium mine, but the radiation level was normal and couldn’t have been the reason for the outbreak, according to experts. Deputy Director General of Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Centre Sergey Lukashenko provided a preliminary assessment of the ongoing investigation.

“[In Kalachi] we have discovered a high content of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbon (CH). I would describe the reason for this disease as follows: periodic inhalation of air with a reduced oxygen concentration and the high concentration of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons,” he said. “The most interesting thing is that the sleeping sickness is triggered by a combination of three factors: the lack of oxygen, plus the excess CO and CH. Each of these three components separately is within the normal level and none of them seemed to cause suspicions; hence, for a long time we could not figure out the real cause. But when there is a combination of three factors, we observe a classic synergy effect. Our version is such that there is a link between the mine and the sleeping sickness; however, uranium has nothing to do with it. Lots of wooden structures were used when the mine was operational, like fixtures, flooring and so on. After the mine was shut down, it was filled with water and wood in contact with water created carbon monoxide. Then, it started to leak outside the mine gradually to the surface.”

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