by David Dietle
What could be worse than getting diagnosed with one of those? How about having a doctor stand over your death bed, shrug his shoulders and say, “I dunno, magic?” After all, nothing is scarier than the unknown, and science can’t explain the first thing about some pretty horrific diseases, and even less about how to stop them.
Firmly in the category of “things somehow made more terrifying by a ridiculous name,” the Dancing Plague was an actual disease that killed people. In 1518, in Strasbourg, France, Frau Troffea started dancing in the street. After six days, others began to join in; after a week there were 34. By the end of the month there were 400, though at that point most of the people started dropping dead of exhaustion, starvation and strokes. From dancing.
Deadlier than a crocodile with rabies and a machine gun.
Now, you may be thinking that “tackling and forcibly stopping” the people who were literally dancing themselves to death may be a sound idea for preventing the afflicted from dying. But of course, at at time when there was no such thing as Hazmat suits, that would have taken an enormous set of balls. Instead, Strasbourg officials had the brilliant idea of getting everyone to dance more–they herded the afflicted indoors, built them a stage and paid minstrels to crank out more jams, which eventually resulted in most of them dying. Clearly this was the pinnacle of 16th century medicine.
“Well, they’re not dancing anymore, are they?”
The whole thing just kind of ended and, despite almost five intervening centuries, modern medicine has no explanation for why 400 French people suddenly danced themselves to death. Many theories have been offered, such as ergotism (poisoning by a certain type of fungus) and mass psychogenic illness, but they have some issues.
MPI is the first runner-up for the most plausible explanation, but it would have required 400 people to all develop the exact same “mass hysteria” of dancing at a staggered pace over a month, which is pretty unlikely. In the case of ergot poisoning, one of the common side effects is loss of muscular control, which makes complex movements (like dancing) impossible.
Then again, the only alternative seems to be demonic possession or witchcraft, so maybe we’ll just go with the fungus thing and pretend it never happened.
Not everything terrible in the natural world kills you. Sometimes it just pounds your crotch into pixie dust with a meat tenderizer (figuratively).
Nature is a lot like Vinnie Jones.
Stiff person syndrome is one of those cases. People afflicted with it experience increasingly progressive rigidity, so it’s kind of like a muscle cramp that never, ever goes away. As the disease progresses, the victim’s muscles become more and more stiff until they are completely paralyzed–the muscles becoming so constricted that they are frozen. In severe cases, the condition results in difficulty breathing, problems swallowing, muscle ruptures and fucking broken bones.
We have no idea why this syndrome develops in some people. It might have something to do with having diabetes; it could be an autoimmune disease; and it could be the result of a mutated gene, which would be the dumbest mutant power ever conceived.
“You can just take that shit right the fuck outside.”
This brings up the very real possibility that you could have it right now and not even know it. There is no way to predict that it will happen to someone, or how long it will take to cripple them once it starts. There are some treatment options, most of which involve lots of injections that relieve part of the stiffness. The bottom line, though, is your ass is wheelchair-bound regardless of what you do.
While bleeding to death inside your body is pretty terrifying, the sweating sickness will kill you mere hours after you start showing symptoms, and it has come and gone six times already in Europe.
Reportedly it begins with “a sense of apprehension,” followed by violent cold shivers, headaches, severe neck, shoulder and limb pain, and oddly, giddiness. After the “cold stage,” which can last anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, there comes the “sweating stage,” where the victim starts pouring out sweat like Ruben Studdard trapped in a Stuckey’s with no air conditioning.
Because he’s fat.
While the sweat stage isn’t always immediately fatal, it typically leads to more sweating stages that will eventually kill you. It first appeared in 1485 in England, and killed thousands of people within a single year, most likely because by the time anyone realized they had it, the entire village was already infected.
We have no freaking idea what it is. People sweat, then die. Quickly. Is it a virus? Bacteria? Something toxic everyone in the area was drinking or eating or breathing? Who knows?
All we have is speculation. Some think it might be a version of the Hanta virus, which is a hemorrhagic fever like Ebola and Lujo, but there’s no proof. This is like telling someone that there is a werewolf somewhere in their room before shutting off the lights and letting them guess.
“Hotter. Hotter! You found him!”
What we know is that it’s contagious. We mentioned already that it has come and gone six times already–these weren’t individual cases scattered over centuries, but six individual epidemics. And as we know from Ebola and Lujo, when you don’t know what causes it, it’s only a matter of time before some poor bastard farts on a transatlantic flight and once more unleashes cold, sweaty hell on the modern world.
Imagine, if you will, a cute baby cow at the beginning of its long, happy life on the farm.
Now imagine that it gets sick with something that makes it sweat blood, and that even the lightest touch causes a horrible wound as if your fingers were made of sharks. Despite giving the calves vitamins and blood clotting drugs, they all bleed out in a matter of days, leaving behind piles of goo and some seriously confused ranchers.
“Things just haven’t been the same since my calves exploded.”
The condition apparently turns the calves’ marrow into gelatin and prevents the production of platelets and white blood cells, making them unable to form clots of any kind and leaving them wide open to infection.
There is no evidence that this is a disease in the traditional sense of the word.
Infected calves have been vaccinated against all kinds of bovine viruses and bacteria, even rare ones, with no luck. It has spread from Germany to Belgium, acting very much like a transmittable disease, but seems to lack anything tangible like a virus to blame.
“Maybe it’s a mummy curse?” -Science
The main theory right now suggests that the baby cows are somehow developing an immunity to their own bone marrow. That’s the kind of thing that just shouldn’t happen in a body, like if your skull decides it wants to be “immune” from your brain.
It is hard to imagine that on a continent like Africa where AIDS, yellow fever and malaria rage out of control that there could be an illness that qualifies as “worse.”
Enter Lujo and Ebola. They are both what are called “hemorrhagic fevers,” which is a fancy way of saying they cause you to bleed to death inside your own skin. A related disease, Marburg, is also from Africa, making it the one continent with diseases that will liquefy your insides and make you cry blood.
And not in the figurative sense, either.
We have no idea how the virus is carried. It could be bats, monkeys, rats, flowers, mosquitoes or goddamn aliens. The problem seems to be that every time one of these diseases has an outbreak, they kill so fast and so thoroughly that scientists can’t figure out where it came from.
“Not even I know, and I’m goddamned Morgan Freeman.”
The first Ebola outbreak was in 1976 and struck with a 90 percent fatality rate, which is only slightly less than an elderly person driving their Honda through a farmer’s market. Lujo is only known from a single incident that started in Zambia and moved to South Africa in 2008, killing the shit out of 80 percent of the people infected with it.
Leonardio DiCaprio was unfortunately not harmed.
To bring things closer to home, there was an outbreak of a monkey-only version of Ebola in Reston, Virginia in November 1989. But the fact that it only killed monkeys doesn’t necessarily mean we are in the clear–avian and swine flu didn’t come from people either. And while we’re on the subject, neither did …
There are actually several diseases that are caused by prions, some of which you may never have heard of, like Kuru and Creutzfeldt (Jakob disease) and one most people have heard of, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease.
All prion diseases have something in common: They affect the central nervous system by essentially turning it into Swiss cheese. See, the prions make millions of tiny holes in your brain that grow larger and larger over time, eventually reducing your mind to a perforated slab of quivering lunacy.
All of these diseases can be transmitted, and if you remember back when England had its mad cow outbreak, they can leap from cow to human with no issue. The best part is that you can have it for up to four years before ever showing symptoms, and once you’ve got it, it is completely incurable. Also, in the case of meat infected with mad cow disease, prions are not “killed” by cooking, so you could burn an infected steak to charcoal and still wind up insane and dead.
As if being an incurable brain-shredding disease wasn’t bad enough, no one knows where prions come from. They aren’t a bacteria or even a virus. They are basically protein that has “gone bad” somehow, and it is entirely possible that our own bodies manufacture them by accident from time to time.
Like a piece of Orange Chicken that got way too crispy, only way worse.
So while contracting a disease from someone else who is infected sucks pretty bad already, prions are the one case where if you don’t catch it from someone else, you might just develop it all on your own. Or not. Who knows?