Saturday, July 25, 1998 Published at 03:47 GMT 04:47 UK
The forgotten plague
The programme uses archive film from the 1920s
A mysterious illness that sent hundreds of thousands of people into a trance-like state in 1920s could be about to break out again.
The claim is contained in the BBC science programme, QED, to be broadcast next Wednesday.
Dr Stavia Blunt, from London's Charing Cross Hospital, said she has seen four patients with presumed Encephalitis Lethargica in the last four years.
"Perhaps there are more cases around than we think. I suspect that they are going misdiagnosed," she said.
Medical historians say the first reported case of the disease was in Vienna during World War I. Within months, other cases were being reported across Europe and the rest of the world.
Others became violent, excitable or were driven mad by hallucinations. In 1928, the disease apparently disappeared.
He managed to bring many of the 'frozen' patients out of their trance by giving them an experimental drug. But the effect was short lived.
Efforts are now being made to isolate the cause of the disease. Professor John Oxford believes the pathogen may be related to the 'flu virus - there was a worldwide influenza epidemic just before Encephalitis Lethargica started to appear. He said this is worrying.
"I think that gives an urgency to working out whether influenza is involved or not."
Professor Oxford, who leads a team of virologists at the Royal London Hospital, is studying brain samples saved from the 1920s. He found them, by chance, stored in his hospital's archive.
"I certainly do not think the outbreak [in the 1920s] was a one-off. I wouldn't be surprised at all if there were succeeding outbreaks. And until we know what caused it, we can't plan things properly."
The QED programme tells the story of Philip Leather, who contracted the disease in the 1920s and still thinks he is a 13-year-old.
The programme also hears the case of Rebecca Howells, 28, a modern victim of the disease. She spent more than one month in intensive care in a bizarre, restless coma.
Doctors eventually gave Rebecca a massive dose of steroids and she made a full recovery.
QED - The Forgotten Plague - is broadcast on BBC 1 on Wednesday, July 29, at 22:00 BST.