Porphyria: A Truly Evil Disease

With Halloween rapidly approaching, and bringing with it the usual heightened interest in ghouls, goblins, spooks and monsters of all kinds, it’s not at all unusual that we find additional interest also at this time of the year in the legends and myths surrounding vampires. Partly due to this seasonal interest, and with vampires garnering so much additional attention in the media in general these days, with movies, and weekly TV series, and being featured as both hero and villain in so many written works, it shouldn’t strike anyone as strange if they encounter many people who, on the surface at least, appear to be experts on this particular variety of night-stalker. But I wonder just how many of these “experts” are aware of what is perhaps the most distinct, and to me at least, somewhat strange, separation of classes between the various vampire legends, and whether those who are aware of the separation, are also aware of the possible explanation for the development of the class of Vampire that we in modern times are probably most familiar with.

First of all, we should look at the two main classes of vampire legends. These would be separated initially into the group of legends and myths surrounding vampires that were popular during the 18th century and which dealt with the “folkloric” or “mythic” vampires, and then secondarily into the assorted legends and myths which surrounded the “modern” vampires in our 20th and 21st centuries.¹ The two sets of beliefs regarding these two classes of vampires are not the same by any means, almost different enough that they could be describing two separate creatures. Both called vampires, but in some crucial ways, almost polar opposites.² And while there has never been (or it has failed to survive to modern times) a good explanation of what was at the heart of the early folkloric or mythic legends that caused belief in these beasts – and we will see in a moment that that belief was a real one – we do have a pretty good idea what may be behind at least some of the legends and myths surrounding the modern vampire.

We mentioned earlier that one difference between the two classes of myths and legends was the belief factor. As popular as the subject of vampires is in our modern media, it’s pretty safe to say that with the exception of a very small fringe element, most people in modern society accept that vampires are creatures of legend, ranking right alongside fairies, leprechauns, elves and such. If you feel you belong to that fringe group, however, you can contact the Vampire Society here, but be advised, their website does state you may only join by invitation. Back in the 18th century, however, things were quite a bit different.…during the 18th century,…Eastern Europe in particular, was rife with reports of vampire sightings. So prevalent was the belief in the existence of a literal vampire, that the Austrians, occupying Serbia during the 1730’s, dispatched a team of medical officers to a Serbian town to investigate the weekly exhumations and ‘killing’ of the dead”.¹

Now, these exhumations, and “killings of the dead” lead us to another of the great differences in the early and modern mythologies. And it really is a very significant one, belonging to that class of differences that I said earlier almost made the two forms of vampires to be polar opposites. But first we need to look at what we said about there being a possible explanation for our modern mythologies, as opposed to the early legends of which we have no viable root that we can see. The explanation that has been offered for the new beliefs about vampires only came about as recently as 1985, in an article in the New York Times about a speech given by a Dr. David Dolphin to the American Association For The Advancement of Science³. In the speech Dr. Dolphin suggested that werewolves and vampires might have been no more than people suffering from a rare disease of the blood known as porphyria. “…He went on to say that signs and symptoms commonly associated with vampirism, ie, protruding teeth, avoidance of sunlight, drinking blood, and (sometimes) disfigurement, could have been exhibited by sufferers…”³ There are also symptoms that would link sufferers of this disease with the werewolf legends of the same time frame.

Porphyria is actually an entire group of genetic and acquired diseases of the blood caused when the production and synthesis of haemoglobin goes awry.¹ Its rarest and most horrific form, of which only 200 cases have been diagnosed, is called congenital erythropoietic  porphyria. A person suffering from this condition is extremely sensitive to light, or sun, which will cause the skin to blister, and then upon becoming infected, will leave the patient scarred, and permanently disfigured. Though treatment could involve blood transfusions,  it used to be thought that the only truly effective treatment was bone marrow transplantation.³ Nowadays, however, newer research is showing that bone marrow transplants have some problems of their own, and though blood transfusion is still the mainstay of treatment, in another nod to the vampire legends, it has been noted that the necessary component in blood survives the digestion process, so in theory, porphyria symptoms can be relieved by drinking blood.¹¹

Let us take a look now at the differences in the make-up of the two bodies of legends and myths surrounding these creatures, so we can see how porphyria could easily answer the how’s and the why’s for our modern vampire beliefs, but how it simply won’t work to try and attribute belief in vampires in the 18th century to this same disease. First of all, belief in the existence of vampires in Eastern Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, was so rampant and widespread, that bodies were being dug up so that they could be killed, and this is documented, on a weekly basis! But the most extreme type of porphyria, which is the type that would account for symptoms that would make a sufferer resemble a vampire, has only had 200 diagnosed cases in all of history. (It should be noted that the condition may have been less rare at times in history, in isolated pockets where inbreeding may have occurred, or people were exposed to environmental contaminants.) In the absence of extenuating circumstances, however, that’s hardly enough sufferer’s to cause such widespread sightings. The next thing to consider is that extreme porphyria sufferers are terribly light-sensitive, and would never be caught outside in the daytime. Whereas that fits well with our modern idea of a vampire, it’s the opposite of the folkloric vampires, who were believed to tolerate sunlight extremely well. Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula was seen walking in London’s streets during the day. Those porphyria patients who are exposed to light suffer from terrible scarring and disfigurement, including corneal damage and blindness, but the vampires of the 18th century were often described as very healthy-looking, even the ones that were being dug up so they could be killed. And finally, even though porphyria patients can have their symptoms reduced by blood-letting, or blood transfusion, they don’t crave blood, but like our modern vampire, the early vampire supposedly craved blood all the time.¹‚²‚³‚¹¹

I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that whereas porphyria does match in many ways our modern concept of the vampire of current legend, it really can’t account for the vampire of old. Thus, I don’t see porphyria as being the basis for the old vampire legends, something we’ll just have to keep looking for, but I do see it as the basis for a modern myth-in-the-making, and my only concern is that the building of that myth might take the focus away from those that presently suffer, from what I have come to see as a truly evil disease, far worse than any imaginary vampire. A disease that rare or common, is happening too much, a disease that is still in that realm of diseases that our medical practitioners can only offer relief of the symptoms on, but for which there is some research being done in gene therapy which may sound more promising than most. One of those diseases that I will certainly add to my prayer list now that I’m aware of it, and one that I plan to keep up to date on, as soon as I get up to date in the first place. If this article has piqued your interest in this subject at all, you may want to check back on this article from time-to-time as I will be updating it as I tend to do with all articles that truly interest me. Rather than write a whole new posting, I try to add new material to the existing post, since I find that that works well with the entire concept of Blogs, where a new visitor to the site might be reading any of the various articles, in any order, owing to the fact that they all remain available at all times, and they are all new articles to the individual who has just discovered the site.

For those of you out there who have to fight with this thing, and I really hope that that’s none of you, (but knowing how search engines work, there’s always the possibility), I’ve included a link below to a Porphyria Support Group that you can get to on-line. Please know that if you are suffering from this thing, you are in my prayers, and if you are not a porphyria sufferer, then there’s another thing to thank God for the next time you talk to Him.

Porphyria Support Group

¹http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2398345/?page=1

²http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2398345/?page=2

³Boffey PM. Rare disease proposed as cause for ‘vampire’. New York Times 31

May, 1985; A15.

¹¹http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/born-to-the-purple-the-st/

Porphyria: A Truly Evil Disease

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