The Gnawing was the name of a medical condition that afflicted Vulcanoid species.
Symptoms began to manifest with headaches and shortness of breath which were followed by an irritating dry cough as well as a loss of appetite. Light and sound became painful whilst clothes chafed their skin accompanied by spells of dizziness along with double vision which was then followed by chills and fever. Even the strongest of individuals were unable to work or think or even stay on their feet leaving them bedridden. No known medicines had any effect on this disease. In time, the coughs became persistent but unproductive which meant that the throats as well as lungs were not free from whatever was attacking them. Lung tissue began to break down and the infected began to cough up blood. These were ultimately considered the lucky ones as their lungs filled with fluid and they died in the early stages of the gnawingthus being spared from the symptoms of the later stages.
Those that did not die began to suffer from nausea, vomiting, agonizing joint pain, rigidity of muscles and spine making it impossible to turn the head or bend. Contemporary physicians described this state as the flesh literally stiffening to the consistency of wood. In this stage, the fever had gone so high that it boiled the blood leaving victims babbling and raving which led to them being tied down in order to stop them from harming themselves or others. Some died at this point as the lymph nodes in their necks enlarged to such an extent that their airway closed and their life was strangled out of them. This all occurred within a day or two after the manifestation of the first symptom. Those that did not die at this stage suffered from a debilitating rash that was the final of the disease stage.
This aspect of the infection was not really a rash but instead a pooling of blood beneath the skin which signified the capillaries were disintegrating leaving internal organs liquefied. Individuals that lived to this stage hoped for a quick death to claim them.
The term was translated from the Romulan language which was given to an ancient illness that affected the Romulan population during their early history. After these early Vulcans had abandoned their home world after the events of the Sundering, they fled to the planet Romulus. During the outbreak, the death rate was high with the risk of contamination leading uninfected individuals abandoning their infected kin. The worst thing to affect the sufferers was the solitude as the rudimentary clinics the settlers had managed to set up before the illness were overflowed with medical staff dying almost as quickly as their patients. Those that were stricken in their homes were abandoned there as no one wanted to risk contamination which led to entire families being sealed in their houses where the living were trapped with the dying or the dead. Corpses were dumped in common graves until there was no one left with the strength to bury them. The last of the dead were heaped up and burnt or left where they had died for the scavengers to lay on their carcasses.
When the disease had ran its course, one out of every two healthy adults had died with death amongst infants, children, elders and the sickly never being accurately measured. This left up to 50% of the population dead from the effects of the illness. As the broken Romulan population began to recover, they named the disease the Gnawing with myths speaking of it as a demon that inhabited the body and consumed it from within. Those few who had managed to survive its spread passed like wraiths among the healthy and possessed a hunger that could never be satisfied. Despite their attempts at recovering their strength and muscle mass lost to the disease, the survivors never managed to recover no matter how much they ate. Statistics later determined that had another hundred individuals died during the spread of the Gnawing than the Sundered would have been rendered extinct as they would not have had a viable population to breed the next generation.
The etiology of the illness was later traced to a bacillus native to the soil of Romulus whose spores which were similar to those of Tetanus on Earth laid dormant, encapsulated and survived extremes of temperature in the driest soils for a century or more until they were activated. It was believed that toiling the soil had disturbed the dormant spores which infiltrated the lungs of a farmer in the field who absently rubbed it into a minor cut on another individual leading to the spread of the contagion. There had been no attempt to develop a cure or vaccine for the disease
In the millennia since that chaotic time, the Romulans had apparently suffered from a type of societal amnesia which took hold amongst them in the early periods of their history. Amongst other species, the Gnawing was considered a legend and a rumor which talked of a terrible affliction that had befallen the Romulans on their new home world though it was believed that there had been no further outbreaks in later centuries. However, in 2360, the first reported case of Gnawing occurred within the Federation. (TLE novel: Catalyst of Sorrows)