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#GOTscience: Greyscale Disease Plays a Role on 'Game of Thrones'

The latest episode of HBO's "Game of Thrones" delves into the effects of a disease known as greyscale, which has some fearsome real-life analogs.
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There's lots of death on "Game of Thrones," as we saw on this week's episode of HBO's swords-and-sorcery series. But it seems as if death usually comes in battle, or by beheading, or poisoning, or the white-walker equivalent of zombie attacks. Fatal diseases play a supporting role at best — but a fearsome fictional disease had its turn in the spotlight this week.

Greyscale appears to be a mash-up of leprosy and smallpox. Like medieval-era leprosy, greyscale can lead to progressive disfigurement of the body, eventually turning its victims into "stone men" who are stigmatized and ostracized to remote colonies. Like smallpox, greyscale is acutely contagious. Some, like Princess Shireen on "Game of Thrones," manage to survive — but they're marked for life with the scars of the disease.

Image: Princess Shireen
Princess Shireen, played by Kerry Ingram on "Game of Thrones," still bears the marks of a childhood case of greyscale on her face.HBO

We learned this week that Shireen picked up her infection in infancy, from a doll that was sold by a visiting Dornish trader. The story is reminiscent of the tales told about Native Americans being decimated by smallpox and other white-settler diseases.

The smallpox virus has been rendered virtually extinct, thanks to decades' worth of public health efforts. But leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, lives on: Three cases were reported in Florida in February, with at least two of them traced to contact with infected armadillos.

Fortunately, leprosy is far more treatable than it was in ancient or medieval times. In fact, modern-day researchers are finding out that some of the remedies prescribed for medieval illnesses — the kinds of illnesses described in the "Game of Thrones" books — weren't all that wrongheaded. It turns out that a strip of pork really can stop a nosebleed, and that a cattle-bile concoction can kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Check out this Gizmodo feature for more about the search for "AncientBiotics." Take a look at this StackExchange forum for a discussion of the real-world analogs to greyscale (including calcinosis, ichthyosis and "Stone Man Syndrome"). And don't be surprised if we hear more about greyscale in the episodes to come.



Got scientific questions about scenes from "Game of Thrones"? Flag them with the Twitter hashtag #GOTscience.