Mermaids have been at the heart of myths and sailor’s tales for centuries, but could a real medical condition be behind all the folklore?
Sirenomelia is a condition in which infants are born with their legs fused together. Because of the fused legs, the condition is often referred to as – you guessed it – Mermaid syndrome.
According to medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris, the condition occurs when the umbilical cord fails to deliver sufficient nutrients to a fetus. Due to malnutrition, the fetus fails to develop two separate lower limbs. Roughly one in 100,000 children are born with the condition, but little is known of its history.
“Over the course of my research, I've found very little about the disorder's history,” Fitzharris writes on her site, The Chirurgeons Apprentice. “There are snippets here and there which claim that foetuses born with sirenomelia were sometimes preserved in jars and put on display in 'freak shows' during the 19th century. But these sources are frustratingly vague.”
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Over at The Chirurgeons Apprentice, Fitzharris has posted several pictures of preserved fetuses suffering from the condition:
The most recent known Sirenomelia survivor is eight-year-old Peruvian girl named Milagros Cerron. Cerron was born with her legs entirely fused:
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Surgeons have performed multiple surgeries on Cerron in her young life, and she is now able to stand alone and take small unassisted steps. Here she is after the separation surgery:
Thanks to modern medicine, Sirenomelia will not prevent Cerron from living a mostly-functional life. As Fitzharris notes, others in the past weren’t so lucky.
“There are no accounts of anyone with this condition surviving in the past,” she writes at The Chirurgeons Apprentice. “Most died within days of being born due to kidney and bladder failure. Even today, the odds are against those with sirenomelia, though there are a handful of examples of children living past infancy.”