A Moment of Science

Vampire-Like Symptoms Occur With Hereditary Porphyria

The legend of the vampire, Dracula, may have had its basis in a very real disease known as Hereditary Porphyria.

kids dressed up for halloween

Photo: Jason Alley (flickr)

Vampires are a very common figure in history.

The vampire is the stuff of the great horror stories.

However, a recent textbook by geneticist John Jenkins suggests that Bram Stoker’s legend of the vampire, Dracula, may have had its basis in a very real disease that prevents some people from getting rid of old red blood cells.

Red Blood Cells And Your Body

In healthy people, red blood cells live only a short time and then are broken down by the body, which uses the chemical components of old cells to make new ones.

But in a hereditary form of a disease known as “porphyria,” a missing enzyme prevents the body from breaking down hemoglobin in old red blood cells.

What happens instead is that the hemoglobin is only partially broken down, the result being some very odd symptoms.

Hereditary Porphyria

In this form of hereditary porphyria, the skin becomes white with anemia and very sensitive to light. (Remember that vampires only come out at night.) The teeth of Porphyria victims become reddish and even glow under ultraviolet light.

Hair grows faster and thicker than usual; and sores on the skin can develop that eventually erode away the nose or fingers.

Creating A Vampire

Could this pale, hairy, deformed creature of the night be a vampire?

And what about the garlic?

People with porphyria do well to stay away from garlic, which contains a chemical known to aggravate the symptoms of this disease.

Of course porphyria victims don’t suck blood from people’s necks, and even if they did, the bite wouldn’t transmit the disease. However, the inability of some people to break down their own hemoglobin may have given Bram Stoker a model for his legend of Dracula.

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from A Moment of Science:

Support for Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science

Search A Moment of Science