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The whole nature of diseases is that they’re designed to spread. That’s why bacteria and viruses are the dominant life form on this planet. But there are certain kinds of disease that buck the trend by sticking to a single location. They’re called “culture-bound syndromes” or “folk illnesses,” and they’re one of the most fascinating things in medicine. Instead of spreading worldwide through human or animal vectors, these diseases limit themselves to a specific society or culture. Most of them are mental in nature, and they’re all totally weird. Here’s a rundown of 10 of the most notorious.
10 Diseases That Only Happen In One Place
Found only among the Miskito people of Central America’s Mosquito Coast, this intense disorder manifests itself in mostly young women. It can start incredibly suddenly, with patients experiencing low levels of anxiety and nausea interspersed with intense manic attacks. During these attacks, sufferers often take up weapons and do battle against invisible demons. They then pass out, and when they awaken talk about those same demons both fighting them and having sex with them. Western medicine has offered no provable cause for this behavior, and it’s equally bad at curing grisi sikinis. The afflicted typically turn to curandero witch doctors for folk remedies.
Kalachi Sleeping Sickness
Spontaneous sleeping — narcolepsy — isn’t a folk disorder. But when it becomes localized around one specific place, things get a little weird. In 2015, the town of Kalachi in northern Kazakhstan was hit by a pandemic of napping, with hundreds of locals being seized by unstoppable fits of falling asleep no matter what they were doing. The first cases were seen in 2013, but it started picking up steam a few years later, and the stories were striking. Even pets were affected by the bizarre malady. Investigators didn’t find elevated radiation levels, but some believe that carbon monoxide released into the air by a nearby mine could have caused the impromptu napping.
Folk diseases aren’t a modern invention. Here’s a historical one that’s incredibly nuts but thankfully seems to have died out. In 15th-century Europe, the populace was swept by an overwhelming fear that their bodies were turning to fragile, easily-shattered glass. It was primarily restricted to the upper class, and even King Charles VI of France was reported to have glass delusion. Most scientists feel like glass delusion is a variant of what’s called “scholar’s melancholy,” where people with too much free time found their minds wandering to some pretty dark places.
Koro is one of the most famous folk illnesses of all time, because it’s just so ludicrous. Occurring only in the Chinese and Malaysian populations in Southeast Asia, it’s a mental disorder in which the sufferer believes that his penis is being sucked back into his body, never to be seen again. Obviously this is physiologically impossible, but that doesn’t stop dozens of people from freaking out over it every year. In Chinese culture, a loss of sexual potency also means impending death, so koro sufferers often undertake bizarre exercises to keep their peckers on the outside. They tie their wieners to rocks and let them dangle or construct elaborate machines to anchor them in place and prevent any perceived shrinkage.
The stomach is a source of a lot of medical mystery, a roiling cauldron of bacteria that enable us to survive by helpfully breaking our food down into component nutrients. In some Latino cultures, however, that process goes wrong with a folk illness known as empacho. The symptoms are common — constipation and lack of appetite, most notably — but the explanation is not. Empacho describes an undigested ball of food that for whatever reason has decided to take up residence in the gut, blocking the passage of anything else. Remedies range from the innocuous (rolling an egg on the stomach) to the terrifying (azarcon, a lead-heavy salt that can cause serious neurological damage).
One interesting thing about these localized diseases is that in many ways they seem like outgrowths of the culture’s base psychology. Case in point: taijin kyofusho, a Japanese mental illness that amplifies politeness and respect to outrageous levels. Sufferers of TKS believe that their appearance or body odor is innately offensive to other people, and avoid any sort of social contact as a result. When they have to deal with other people, intense anxiety symptoms like sweating and nervous tremors can result. There’s actually a specific treatment known as Morita therapy devised just to deal with these conditions.
Living in one of the most harsh and desolate places on Earth can really do a number on you. The Inuit people of the frozen Arctic spend their winters surrounded by cold and darkness, and when it gets to be too much for them they snap. Colloquially known as “Arctic hysteria,” symptoms include stripping all of your clothes off (which is a one-way ticket to frostbite town) and occasionally consuming your own feces. Episodes typically last only a few minutes, but they can be very shocking. There might be a physiological explanation for pibloktoq — the Eskimo diet is high in Vitamin A, and overdoses of that can produce mental instability.
Sometimes outbreaks of folk illnesses can be traced to a single source. In 2011, students at LeRoy Junior-Senior High School in LeRoy, New York, started exhibiting intense neurological symptoms including tics, outbursts and speech difficulty. Investigators and lawyers flocked to the town to try and find the cause, with possibilities including environmental pollution from the Lehigh Valley railroad derailment. Eventually, once doctors convinced the families to keep their kids away from the media, the symptoms disappeared. The eventual diagnosis was that it was a mass psychogenic illness, where one girl with Tourette’s syndrome unconsciously influenced a whole group into imitating her behavior.
Here’s another sexual dysfunction localized to China, which is making us think that there’s something going on there that needs to be talked about. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were a rash of reports of shenkui, or “semen loss syndrome.” In traditional Chinese medicine, the male reproductive system is linked to the metaphysical force known as “yang,” and busting a nut reduces said yang. Chinese men were basically having mental breakdowns about how much they were jerking off and reporting to the hospital with symptoms including pain, dizziness and insomnia. The only cure? Keeping your hands away from your pants for a while to let your yang build back up.
Wild Pig Syndrome
It seems like many of these mental disorders are triggered by a new influx of responsibility. Wild pig syndrome is an excellent example. This folk disease is endemic in New Guinea among the males, typically if they can’t meet obligations to other tribesmen. It manifests in a sudden and unpredictable explosion of kleptomania, with the “wild pig” robbing the houses of his neighbors and fleeing into the jungle with the stolen loot. A few days later, they invariably stumble back to the village without any of the possessions and having no memory of their behavior. In particularly intense cases, the sufferer will be tied up and held over a smoking fire to purge the madness from their bodies.