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How an incomplete medical knowledge helped give rise to vampires

by Thomas Dworetzky , Contributing Reporter
While vampire research may be relegated today to covens of screenwriters huddled at their local Starbucks, it was once a topic of heavy medical investigation.

“For many years vampirism was a serious subject of research: on the one hand it was a terrifying medical disorder, on the other a mass delusion fostered by wretched social conditions,” Prof. Nick Groom of the University of Exeter told the British tabloid I News.

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There are a number of diseases and conditions identified by today's medical research that could have been behind a diagnosis of vampirism – a serious topic for research back in the “olde” days brought to mind by Halloween's ghoulishly undead charms.

For example, consider a patient who presents with excruciating sensitivity to light, which causes not just pain, but erosion of lips and gums and disfigurement, making him look bloody and exposing his teeth in a “fangy” way. He is also sensitive to garlic – a known vampire repellent.

A member of the ghoulish clan of the bloodsucking undead? More likely to catch a modern diagnosis of cutaneous erythropoietic porphyria (CEP), one of the diseases caused by irregularities in the production of the iron-rich blood pigment heme, according to the science blog brainbank.

Another patient might come staggering in – avoiding sunlight, pale as a sheet of parchment and coughing up blood. Time to reach for your handy stake? Probably better to slip on a quarantine outfit and start asking if anyone else in the immediate family has similar symptoms of the highly contagious disease, tuberculosis, according to Paul Sledzik and Nicholas Bellantoni in their 1994 communications article in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

“The New England folk belief in vampires revolves around the ability of a deceased tuberculosis victim to return from the dead as a vampire and cause the “wasting away” of the surviving relatives,” they wrote. “To stop the actions of the vampire, the body of the consumptive was exhumed and disrupted in various ways. Twelve historic accounts of this activity indicate that the belief was not uncommon in 19th century New England. This creative interpretation of contagion is consistent with the etiology of tuberculosis.”
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