A sickness struck the world for 12 years putting to sleep everyone in its path. The strange illness took the lives of over a million people from 1916 to 1928. But you probably wouldn’t have heard about it unless you’re an epidemiologist. So what was this mysterious illness and why is it just a foot note in history?
Sleeping sickness or encephalitis lethargica as we know it by now starts just like you would expect the flu to. First there is a sore throat and a headache but what comes next is simply terrifying. Soon the person starts shaking uncontrollably and they may start having hallucinations and acting erratically. Finally an intense drowsiness puts the victim into a deep almost sleep like state. This “sleep” can last for years and few ever recover fully if at all. Of the 5 million infected over one and a half million would die from this endless sleep and many of the survivors if they can be called that would live the rest of their lives in intuitions. So what caused all these people to go to sleep and not wake up?
Well as unsettling as it might be we still don’t know for certain. The prevailing theory is that these peoples immune systems over reacted to a bacteria, the one that caused the sore throat. The now enraged immune system would attack the person’s brain and nervous system doing damage and leading to the mentioned symptoms. But this is just the prevailing theory and some think it might have been a unknown virus. The problem is the disease for the most part vanished in 1928 leaving very few clues for researchers.
So your probably wondering why your just now hearing about such an awful disease? Early into this plague the whole world was literally at war with its self. Newspapers were following every battle of the Great War and governments wanted the news to cover nothing else then their glorious victories. New nations were being created and others were destroyed. The “sleepy sickness” as awful as it was couldn’t compete for attention with a war that killed almost 10 million people.
As the war ended though a new danger popped up. An illness that started similar to ours but was even more deadly, the Spanish flu which at over 50 million dead dwarfed even the war in its brutality. As crazy as it seems a mystery illness killing a million people was just a small part of what many thought was the end the world. Since it didn’t get the spotlight back in its heyday few historians took really note and it now has gone mostly unknown.
That is expect for by those who study epidemics because while the illness is mostly gone a few cases of encephalitis lethargica still appear from time to time. Just enough to keep those whose job it is to stop the next plague up at night. There was some hope for a cure in the 60’s using a drug for Parkinson’s but its results were only temporary. There still is no real cure and all doctors can do for the few who happened to suffer it is to treat the symptoms as best as possible. Personally I find the idea of some strange and deadly illness almost sinisterly waiting to come back a little unsettling. It’s strange to imagine that something that wasn’t even a blip on the radar in the 20’s could leave zika and Ebola in its dust.