Vampire Myth Likely Caused by Disease, Scientists Say


The origin of the vampire myth may not have come only from the excitable minds of Middle Age peasants. Instead, a rare genetic disorder called porphyria might have started the tales, according to biochemist Dr. David H. Dolphin of the University of British Columbia and other scientists.

Porphyria is a rare group of at least eight blood disorders. A patient is diagnosed with porphyria if any of the eight different enzymes that create porphyrin, a body chemical which transforms into heme (another chemical the body needs) when in contact with iron, are affected. A patient lacking in any one of the eight enzymes is not able to produce heme, which is responsible for items such as cell differentiation and protein synthesis. In people with porphyria, the build-up of unprocessed porphyrin and the overall lack of heme is what leads to the onset of symptoms. These can include severe, non-diagnosable stomach pain; additional discomfort in the chest, legs or back; vomiting; and diarrhea or constipation. A urine test is needed to provide a definitive diagnosis.

Porphyria is a chronic condition. There is no cure. However, symptoms can be managed. Porphyria flare-ups usually last a week or two, with symptoms decreasing as the attack draws to a close. The more care someone takes in managing their condition, the fewer flares they will likely experience.

Patients with this disease are highly sensitive to sunlight. Those who are able to go outside during the day must wear a high SPF sunscreen. Others must wait for cloudy days or nightfall to venture out. Therefore, many exhibit the paleness and nocturnal tendencies historically associated with vampires.

Bloodsucking behavior, which is typical of vampire myths, may have been a way for the porphyria patient to manage their disease. Today, a significant treatment is injecting man-made heme. In the Middle Ages, there was no way to create heme, so people were forced to drink blood.

This had an unintended side effect in some cases. The cause of porphyria is entirely genetic. People either acquire a disease-carrying gene from one of their parents or disease-carrying genes from both parents. Some people have what is called latent porphyria, in which they have the disease, but are not having symptoms. If someone with the latent form of porphyria allowed a relative to regularly blood-let them for the purposes of disease management, they were taking a great risk. Stress is one of the trigger mechanisms for a porphyria attack. Bloodletting is stressful to the body and might cause a person with latent porphyria to become a person with the active form.

This may explain why the myths incorporated the fact that if someone was bitten, they would also become a vampire. This was not a supernatural event; it was due to a change in disease status. This occurred, not because of dark forces, but due to an asymptomatic person having inflicted too much stress on their body. The person desired to help a family member, using the only treatment available. Neither party may have comprehended the risks involved.

Approximately one person in 200,000 has porphyria, totaling a few hundred worldwide. Modern medicine has only found ways to mitigate their symptoms and has not eradicated the chronic pain. The pain is so significant that it makes some patients permanently fearful because they know it will return and they are helpless to prevent it from doing so. That is hardly an ideal situation, but at least now society realizes that these people are not supernatural monsters out to infect entire communities. The roots of the vampire myth are simply people with the disease called porphyria.

Opinion by Martina Robinson

New York Times–Rare Disease Proposed as Cause for ‘Vampires’
Mayo Clinic–Diseases and Conditions: Porphyria
New York Daily News- Florida family calls 2-year-old son trying to overcome rare disease with vampire-like symptoms their ‘superhero’ (VIDEO)

Photo courtesy of Sandra’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

7 Responses to "Vampire Myth Likely Caused by Disease, Scientists Say"

  1. nb41   June 1, 2015 at 4:55 am

    Ugh…my biggest problem with porphyria being the basis of the vampire myth is the sensitivity to sunlight. Vampires being destroyed by sunlight was an invention of F.W. Murnau for his film Nosferatu. Vampire folklore makes no mention of the destructive effects of sunlight.

  2. Tom Hennessy   May 31, 2015 at 9:06 am

    They’ve shown before, iron causes porphyria, reducing iron treats it.
    “Inducing iron deficiency improves erythropoiesis and photosensitivity in congenital erythropoietic porphyria”

  3. Monica Firchow   May 31, 2015 at 2:30 am

    Use “bit” for the past tense. “Bitten is only used as a past participle, i.e., “had bitten”
    Your article is only semi accurate (I’m being generous). Each porphyria is very different. Not only is each porphyria acquired differently, but each has very different enzyme specific symptoms. Grouping general symptoms to describe all the porphyrias is irresponsible. To suggest that people in the Middle Ages (or any other time) knew that their symptoms “could be” alleviated by drinking someone’s blood is ridiculous! If you want to write about porphyria, you really ought to learn about it first. Google American Porphyria Foundation first. If you want to get close and personal with porphyria look at WhatHappenedToMrBennett dot net.
    David Dolphin was highly criticized for his conclusions and they were poorly regarded by the majority of scientists. My father had congenital eyrthropoietic porphyria and was working with a real porphyria specialist when Dolphin made is ludicrous claims.

  4. Nella   May 27, 2015 at 1:43 am

    Martina, There was a lot less people then

  5. Martina Robinson   May 26, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Last time I trust anyone else’s math.

  6. M   May 26, 2015 at 11:41 am

    If “approximately one person in 200,000 has porphyria” that would not equal a few hundred worldwide, it would equal thousands. 36587.819325 and counting.

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