Thirteen Days of Halloween: Porphyria, the Vampire Disease
Despite the fact that vampires are considered the manifestation of folklore and silly superstition, history records thousands of sightings through the 17th, 18th, 19th and even 20th century. Today, a growing number of people not only believe in their existence, they profess to be vampires themselves. But could vampires actually exist? Could vampirism be an actual disease? A number of prominent scientists now believe the answers to these questions are, "yes."
The vampire of legend
While many find the vampire legend both fascinating and strangely tantalizing when inhabiting the written page or silver screen, it’s one that can easily be dismissed in these modern times. Our enlightened sensibilities recognize this belief as the result of silly superstition and vivid imagination. But during the 18th century when folklore and myth dominated Eastern European perception, reports of vampires, as well as werewolves, were rampant, with hundreds of eye-witness sightings. In fact, so prevalent was the common belief in the existence of vampires that the Austrians, who were occupying Serbia during the 1730s, sent a team of medical officers to the Serbian countryside to investigate reported weekly “exhumations and killing of the undead.” And as the medical community has struggled through the centuries to find a biological link to this terrifying condition, one word has surfaced again and again, now becoming the prevalent explanation for what many now believe not to be a superstitious myth at all, but an actual medical condition. One known as porphyria. A condition often referred to as the Vampire Disease.
Diagnosis and symptomology
Supporting this controversial scientific perspective was a highly publicized article that appeared in the News York Times in May of 1985 which reported a speech given by the prominent English organic chemist and Harvard graduate, Dr. David H Dolphin, to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, during which he presented evidence that “werewolves and vampires, those dreaded beasts of folklore and superstition, may have been nothing more than people suffering from a rare class of genetic disease,” called porphyria. Dr. Dolphin went on to say that the signs and symptoms commonly associated with vampirism, for example, protruding teeth, avoidance of sunlight, drinking blood, and (sometimes) disfigurement, could all have been exhibited by sufferers of porphyria.
According to studies conducted at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Dolphin discovered that the “porphyrias,” a group of rare genetic and acquired diseases of the blood, result when the production and synthesis of hemoglobin go awry. The rarest and most horrific form of the porphyrias, which Dolphin cites as not only a viable explanation for vampires but werewolves as well, is a congenital form called “erythropoietin” porphyria, a condition with only about 200 diagnosed cases to date.
Beginning in early childhood, congenital erythropoietic porphyria manifests as an extreme sensitivity to light; especially the sun. With exposure to light, the skin quickly blisters, with infection setting in that can be so severe as to scar the individual, even leaving them disfigured. Possible treatment for sufferers could involve blood transfusions, but the only effective treatment known thus far is bone marrow transplantation which few have had the means to utilize.
On the surface, the vampiristic aspects of congenital erythropoietic porphyria are quite evident. Avoidance of sunlight and the (presumed) need to ingest blood to improve their condition, as Dr Dolphin suggests, may have driven its victims to “suck the blood of their brothers and sisters,” in less enlightened times when superstition and folklore dominated people’s reasoning.
One aspect of vampirism folklore that seems to contradict this explanation, however, is the fact that during 18th and 19th century Europe, there were numerous vampire citings during daylight hours. Even Stoker’s Dracula was observed taking an afternoon stroll through London’s crowded streets, as it was commonly believed that vampires could do so when it served their sinister needs. And while many among the science community readily point out that while congenital erythropoietic porphyria may explain the vampire as we know it in the 20th century, it does not address the folkloric vampire. Supporters of Dolphin’s hypothesis, however, argue that this could simply indicate the existence of another variety of this disease, or perhaps a mutant--even regional--strain.
Another factor that seems to oppose the traditional vampire scenario as we know it is that when folkloric vampires were unearthed (as they often were), they were always described as looking quite healthy--often, even more vibrant than in life. With erythropoietic porphyria, however, its disfiguring effects would have caused the victims to appear anything but healthy.
The vampire-porphyria association
As many modern scientists are quick to point out, individuals with congenital erythropoietic porphyria do not actually “crave” blood. In fact, the enzyme necessary to alleviate the horribly disfiguring symptoms is not absorbed by oral ingestion whatsoever, and sucking blood (hematophany) would have no beneficial effects for the sufferer. But then as now, logic would dictate that were a sufferer to discover the relationship between blood and alleviation of symptoms, desperation might well send them to attempt the extreme. (Even in modern times, individuals have exhibited far more extreme behavior in self-treating diseases.)
As congenital erythropoietic porphyria is an extremely rare manifestation of an already rare disease, it seems unlikely that this condition could explain the whole of the folkloric vampire. But if porphyria is indeed more than one condition or has mutated through the centuries, this argument could easily be explained, and one that Dr Dolphin steadfastly continues to promote in supporting the vampire-porphyria association.
Vlad image via wikipedia.org
Others via freakingnews.com