A virus may be behind some of the bizarre behavior observed in so-called “reptile people,” according to a recent study.
Many would agree that those with a passion for reptiles are strange. Some have gone so far as to claim that they worship the devil. But researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore have found a different explanation for this unusual behavior. Above-average fascination with reptiles and the compulsion to collect them is actually linked to a virus: Parechovirus irwinae.
“Move over salmonella — there’s a new epidemic in town,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Herb T. File, referring to anti-reptile concerns that have proliferated since the CDC linked pet turtles to outbreaks of salmonella in the early 1970s. “But all joking aside, it seems to be a serious disease that debilitates its victims.”
The study reports that humans infected with P. irwinae lose all rational thought processes, particularly while in proximity to reptiles. Sufferers of reptile addiction will ignore strained personal relationships, financial troubles, and even physical injury just to add one more reptile to their hoard. Roughly 80% of those infected develop multicolored rashes, a fascination with body piercings, and may even experience sudden changes in hair color. “It’s startling when you find a physical cause behind what was thought to be just a behavioral quirk,” Dr. File admits.
People generally become infected through contact with other infected humans, although the original source of the virus is currently unknown. Transmission is not very predictable, either. While the common cold or flu can affect just about anyone, P. irwinae seems to be more choosy about its hosts. “There may be a genetic influence somewhere,” postulates Dr. File.
Early in the study it was thought that males were primarily infected, but further investigation has revealed near 50/50 infection rates between men and women. Teenagers and young adults tend to have the highest susceptibility to reptile addiction, although it is unclear whether they are most likely to catch the disease at this age or whether symptoms start to manifest around that time. But once infected, the disease often never truly goes away.
“It’s a complex disease that will require much more research,” says Dr. File. “We’re classifying it as a type of encephalitis for now, but still don’t understand the exact viral mechanism that affects the brain’s function, or why it sometimes affects skin and hair color.”
Joe Nodahorttr, who was infected with P. irwinae last year, participated in Dr. File’s study. In the last 12 months, his behavior has become more erratic as the reptile addiction has taken hold. “I lost my job because I brought my snake to work. And even while I was at work, all I did was read articles about reptiles or plan my next reptile expo trip,” he says.
“It started slowly — I thought I was just experimenting with a new hobby. I’ve always been good with money, but then I used up my entire paycheck at the expo. That’s when I began to suspect that something might be wrong with me.”
When Nodahorttr read about Dr. File’s research in an online reptile publication, a lightbulb went off. “It couldn’t be a coincidence.”
Nodahorttr immediately reached out to the research team for help. “Dr. File himself diagnosed me. And now at least I have an explanation for what is happening. I know this disease is ruining my life, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Nodahorttr is keeping his collection of ten snakes a secret from his girlfriend, although recently he spent the money he was planning to spend on a ring on a high-end ball python morph instead. After he spent his paycheck at the reptile expo, he had to get a loan to cover rent that was due two days later.
Despite the seriousness of his disease, a rapidly deteriorating Nodahorttr didn’t seem able to grasp the severity of the situation during an interview with ReptiFiles. “It’s all about education,” he said. “Reptiles are seriously misunderstood.”
It’s cases like these that compel Dr. File and his team to work overtime to find a cure for Parechovirus irwinae and subsequent reptile addiction. “It’s frightening to see how one virus can alter a mind. We can only hope to stumble across a treatment soon.”
This article is a work of fiction inspired by Horse Network’s “Study Finds ‘Horse Bug’ in People is Caused by Actual Virus.”
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