Imagine a classic horror scene; the room is dark, the wind hollows in the distance and the protagonist awakens suddenly to find themselves incapable of moving. A prisoner to their own brain, they are only able to watch stuck in place, a living statue.
What if we told you, this was not a thing of fiction but rather a real disease that continues to stump the medical community to this day.
Just after World War I, a mysterious disease known as the sleepy sickness, or lethargic encephalitis, began affecting millions of people across the world. Among those affected many died, stuck in whatever pose they had been in when the disturbing illness attacked their bodies and froze them in place.
The brain illness spread around the globe just as the Spanish flu that killed over 50 million people did. We would argue this might explains why it was originally overlooked by history.
With World War I on everyone’s minds, it came to no shock that these rather unusual symptoms were originally linked with mustard gas, which had been used during the war. The theory was short lived as mustard gas did not match with the symptoms that kept pouring in.
A neurologist from Vienna named Constantin von Economo wrote a paper, “Die Encephalitis lethargica,” in which he gave an extensive description of the illness after witnessing similar cases in civilians. It didn’t take long before his name became associated with the new disease and lethargic encephalitis became known in Vienna as von Economo disease
Autopsies performed by von Economo determined that one of the main causes of death was a swollen hypothalamus. Fore those that like us perhaps were not the biggest fan of high school biology; the hypothalamus is a small section of the brain that has a vital role in controlling many functions, among which is sleep. The inflammation of the hypothalamus caused by the infection led to damage of this section of the brain, which in many cases proved to be fatal.
Several years after von Economo published his paper, the horrifying epidemic began marching from house to house, taking its toll in human lives and leaving millions of people trapped in their own bodies.
The only question everyone was rushing to figure out was what caused the disease?
Who Was Affected:
It affected people of all ages, but the most vulnerable to the disease were young people between 15 and 35 years old. From what is known, the illness began as any other flu infection: feeling tired, high fever, headache, runny nose. There was no way for the patient to know they were battling a deadly disease. This lack of signs would give the virus just enough time to spread into the brain.
A decade after the disease had spread around the world like wildfire, just as quick as it had come, it vanished. Scientists felt assured that this mystery was a thing of the past; however, a few understood the ordeal was far from over.
In 1993 a young girl named Becky Howells was diagnosed with the largely forgotten disease, and it took several years before she recovered. Since then more cases have slowly appeared.
It was concluded that many of the patients had sore throats before encephalitis lethargica struck, which, according to research conducted by doctors Russell Dale and Andrew Church, was due to a rare form of streptococcus bacteria. They noted that the massive immune reaction to the bacteria caused the immune system of the infected to attack the brain, resulting in brain damage.
It was certainly a groundbreaking discovery, but it hasn’t been definitively proven that the rare form of streptococcus bacteria is the cause of the disease. Encephalitis Lethargica remains a mystery, capable of striking at any time and leaving behind a real living statue…