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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.

The BBC's Sue Nelson: 'One bride fell asleep on her way to church and never woke up'
The disease, called Encephalitis Lethargica, leaves its victims mentally intact but damages the area of the brain responsible for movement. Sufferers take on the image of living statues and can remain motionless and speechless for many years.

[ image: Dr Stavia Blunt:
Dr Stavia Blunt: "There are more cases"
Sleepy Sickness, as it is also known, was thought by many doctors to be an illness from history, but now new cases are starting to appear in British hospitals.

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.

Deep sleep

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.

[ image: The disease shocked the world]
The disease shocked the world
It affected people in bewildering ways. Some fell into a deep sleep - a bride was reported to have fallen asleep on the way to her wedding and never woke again.

Others became violent, excitable or were driven mad by hallucinations. In 1928, the disease apparently disappeared.

[ image: Robin Williams made a movie about the disease]
Robin Williams made a movie about the disease
A Hollywood film called Awakenings, starring Robin Williams, sparked recent interest in the illness. It told the story of Dr Oliver Sachs who tried to cure victims in a New York hospital in the 1960s.

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.

Flu virus

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.

[ image: Professor Oxford is a virologist-turned-detective]
Professor Oxford is a virologist-turned-detective
"There will be another massive outbreak of influenza sometime in the near future," he said.

"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.

[ image: New techniques could solve the mystery]
New techniques could solve the mystery
He is also examining the blood taken from recent victims. He hopes modern science can unlock the secrets of the disease.

"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."

Unique story

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.

[ image: Philip Leather thinks he is 13]
Philip Leather thinks he is 13
He is among the last survivors of the original outbreak, and his brain will be donated to medical science when he dies.

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.

See archive footage here
One of the most remarkable features of the broadcast is the use of archive film, both from the 1920s and from the private film collection of Dr Oliver Sachs.

QED - The Forgotten Plague - is broadcast on BBC 1 on Wednesday, July 29, at 22:00 BST.

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