Places Where Rare Genes Are Incredibly Common

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1. Introduction

However, the vast majority of a population lives is considered to be ‘normal’. Most of the time, ‘normal’ means a lack of genetic conditions, deformities, or disabilities that would render us different from the general population. Things like twins, dwarfism, and a number of diseases are most often considered to be rare occurrences. However, there are some places in the world where these conditions are, in fact, the ‘norm’ and occur in much more abundant numbers than anywhere else in the world.

2. Kalachi and Krasnogorsk, Kazakhstan

In March of 2013, people in two small villages in Kazakhstan, their combined populations totaling just over eight hundred, began to experience strange symptoms. Almost one hundred and fifty people were affected by a strange illness that caused them to suddenly fall asleep, even while standing up or walking. Upon awaking, they would report weakness, headaches, and memory loss. Some of the afflicted ended up falling asleep for almost a week at a time (Luhn). News sources reported that while some people fell to the ground upon falling asleep, others could appear to be conscious and even continue walking around, despite snoring and waking up with no memory of their activity during their sleep. Frighteningly, several people reported having vivid hallucination-like dreams of terrifying things, to which they would react erratically regardless of sleeping-state.

Scientists and doctors immediately began attempting to discover the cause for this strange condition. They tested a wide number of sufferers but an explanation eluded them. In the beginning, it was believed that the culprit was some counterfeit vodka that had recently entered the market. As more and more people fell ill, though, doctors came to diagnose them with encephalopathy (brain illness) of unknown origin. Next, it was suspected that the uranium mines that were closed after the Soviet Union fell could be to blame. The health ministry of Kazakhstan tested more than seven thousand locations near the closed mines but found no alarming levels of radiation or heavy metals. Sleep disorder experts attempted to find an explanation, as well, but when no specific cause could be identified, many began to believe that the villages were suffering from mass psychosis. 

Finally, in 2015, a cause was identified and strides were taken to treat this mysterious illness that baffled the world for two years. As it turns out, the condition could, in fact, be traced back to the uranium mines. An examination of all the villages’ residents concluded that the sleeping illness was caused by high levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in the air as a result of the nearby mines. Though the mines have been closed for years, the oxygen in the air in the surrounding area is reduced due to the concentration of carbon monoxide that radiates around them (Luhn). The villages have been evacuated until the area is safe for human habitation again. 

3. Araras, Brazil

While Brazil may be known for its beaches and parties, people from one remote Brazilian village live a very different lifestyle. A large chunk of the population in Araras, Brazil suffers from a condition that makes them overly-sensitive to the sun. While the condition occurs in the United States in one person out of every million, one in forty of Araras residents develop xeroderma pigmentosum. Those with the condition are incredibly sensitive to UV rays and their skin literally beings to melt in the sunlight (“Residents of the Brazilian village of Araras are melting away due to rare skin condition”). The sensitivity prevents their bodies from repairing any damage caused by the sun. According to the National Cancer Institute, one in five patients with xeroderma pigmentosum also suffer from deafness, developmental delays, and spastic muscles as a result of the disease (“Residents of the Brazilian village of Araras are melting away due to rare skin condition”). The only way to combat the symptoms are to avoid sunlight and to take protective measures, like using sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses.

Doctors say that there is a very simple explanation for such a large occurrence of the disease in Araras. When the village was established, it was done so by only a handful of families, several of which were carriers of the disease. This ensured that it would be passed along to the next generations as the villagers intermarried and produced children. For the disease to manifest in children, it is necessary for both parents to carry the gene. The geographical isolation of the village, keeping its citizens far from outsiders, made marriages between cousins more common than it would be elsewhere, creating more cases of the disease. Thus, large numbers of the population continue to develop the condition.

4. Velikaya, Ukraine

If you find yourself in the village of Velikaya, settled in western Ukraine, you might think you’re seeing double. Velikaya is known affectionately as Land of the Twins and holds a record for its staggering twin population; out of less than four thousand residents, the village is home to more than sixty sets of twins (Selman). The unusual number of twins in the village is not a new phenomenon at all; Velikaya’s oldest twin is almost eighty years old. 

Interestingly, many of the locals believe that the secret to the large numbers of twins lies in their drinking water. Local legend says that a woman from a village almost one hundred miles away tried for years to become pregnant with no success (Merkusheva). She began traveling to Velikaya regularly to drink its famed water and within a few short months, finally found herself pregnant- and with twins! This is only one of many stories accounting for the supposed miraculous nature of the village’s water. Though scientists have conducted many studies on the water there, they have found nothing unusual about it except for the fact that it is very clean. Currently, there is no exact explanation for the abundance of twins in Velikaya, but a handful of sets of twins continue to be born there every year. 

5. Yangsi, China

A remote village in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan has become famous, despite having less than one hundred residents. Its popularity can be attributed to the fact that thirty six of the village’s eighty citizens are dwarfs, with the tallest standing at just under four feet and the shortest measuring barely over two feet (“The Unsolved Mystery of China’s Dwarf Village”). Typically, a person has only a one in twenty thousand chance of having dwarfism or some kind of stunted growth, making the sheer number of dwarfs in Yangis statistically impossible (Selman). While the dwarf population in Yangsi has been baffling scientists for decades, no one can seem to figure out why this particular village is home to such a disproportionate number of shorter residents. 

Understandably nicknamed ‘the Village of Dwarfs’, the villagers have their own explanation of what caused their high dwarf population. One summer many years ago, the village was struck with a terrible disease. The disease seemed to affect small children between the ages of five and seven and caused them to suddenly stop growing. Those affected never grew any taller and some began to suffer a number of disabilities (“The Unsolved Mystery of China’s Dwarf Village”). They also believe that the disease can be passed on to later generations, causing more cases of dwarfism as the years go on. There are several other local legends regarding the large dwarf population. These theories range from bad feng shui in the region to a lack of proper burial to please their deceased ancestors. Others recall the summer in which the dwarfism began and note a black turtle that was caught by one of the villagers. Some wanted to let the turtle go but others ended up roasting and eating it. Soon after, when the disease started to manifest among the population, some of the villagers began to believe they would have been better of letting the turtle go, for surely they had been cursed (“The Unsolved Mystery of China’s Dwarf Village”). Scientists, though, remain unsure about the true cause of the abundance of dwarfs in Yangsi. Many have flooded to the area to test the crops, the village’s water sources, and the soil in various areas throughout the region. They have also performed several tests on the effected individuals as well, but have thus far been unable to determine a cause. 

6. Hogewey in Weesp, Netherlands

Slightly different from the others on this list, the village of Hogewey on the outskirts of Weesp is home to a large number of residents who share a common characteristic because they have been brought there. Hogewey is commonly known as ‘Dementia Village’, a place where residents are either dementia patients and do not know it or undercover caretakers. Rather than putting dementia patients in nursing homes when they develop dementia, health-care workers in Amsterdam decided instead to create a whole village in which dementia patients could live the rest of their lives in relative normalcy receiving cognitive stimulation activities. Health-care workers act out various roles at the village’s grocery store, movie theater, restaurant, and hair salon (Tinker). The residents have the ability to roam the village freely but are unable to leave. A perimeter wall is formed by the two-story dormitory-like homes, preventing residents from accidentally wandering out of the village. It rests on four acres of land and features beautiful courtyards, benches, and landscaped parks. 

Hogewey is an excellent alternative to nursing homes for dementia patients for a number of reasons. Obviously, residents there are able to maintain a level of independence that is not afforded to those who are moved into nursing homes. Another benefit of Hogewey is that it is a much more affordable option than twenty four hour per day in-home care and enables families to find comfort knowing that their loved ones are taken care of by qualified individuals but also living as independently as possible (“Dementia Villages”). It costs no more than a traditional nursing home, as citizens of Holland pay into the state health care system while they are in their working years that is later disbursed to help pay for their expenses later in life. Residents on Hogewey report less need for medication to manage their symptoms and report a happier state of living than dementia patients living in traditional nursing homes. 

7. Conclusion

The vast majority of people do not possess the rare genetic conditions described in this list. The statistical probability of someone giving birth to twins, developing a condition rendering them deathly sensitive to the sun, or developing dwarfism is incredibly small. These things are not considered to be normal because, while not unheard of, they very rarely occur. Surprisingly, though, there are some places in the world in which these things are more common than they are uncommon. While most people are entirely unlikely to experience certain genetic conditions or diseases, there are some places in the world where these things happen so often that what is considered to be ‘normal’ is completely unique.

Works Cited

“Dementia Villages”. Dementia Village. Dementia Village Advisors, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. <http://www.dementiavillage.com/>.

Luhn, Alec. “Mystery of Kazakhstan sleeping sickness solved, says government”. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 17 Jul. 2015. Web. 14 Sept. 2016 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/17/mystery-kazakhstan-sleeping-sickness-solved>. 

Merkusheva, Daria. “Ukraine’s twin town revels in special status”. BBC News. BBC, 07 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8444321.stm>.

“Residents of the Brazilian village of Araras are melting away due to rare skin condition”. News.com.au. News Limited, 07 May 2014. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. <http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/residents-of-the-brazilian-village-of-araras- are-melting-away-due-to-rare-skin-condition/story-fneuzlbd-1226908838806>.

Selman, Xavier. “10 Bizarre Villages Where Rare Genes Are The Norm”. ListVerse. ListVerse, 07 May 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. <http://listverse.com/2016/05/07/10-villages-where-rare-genes-are-the-norm/>.

“The Unsolved Mystery of China’s Dwarf Village”. Oddity Central. Oddity Central, 05 Jun. 2014. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. <http://www.odditycentral.com/news/the-unsolved-mystery-of-chinas-dwarf-village.html>.

Tinker, Ben. “’Dementia village’ inspires new care”. CNN. Cable News Network, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. <http://edition.cnn.com/2013/07/11/world/europe/wus-holland-dementia-village/>.