Via The Star: Afghan schoolgirls mystery sickness: Poison or mass hysteria? Excerpt:
Hundreds of schoolgirls have been wailing, vomiting and fainting in northern Afghanistan over the past few months.
No one has died from the mysterious illness and most recover within a day or two. This is the fourth straight year the illness has afflicted Afghan girls in the northern provinces although there has been a dramatic spike in 2012 — 858 cases reported in the first five months alone compared to 119 last year.
The provincial governments and Kabul say the girls are being poisoned by the Taliban, or Pakistani spies, because they are attending school — something that was forbidden during the Taliban rule in the 1990s. The radical group has denied any involvement.
But the World Health Organization believes it has found the cause: mass hysteria, or, in medical parlance, mass psychogenic illness (MPI).
“In the last four years over 1,634 cases from 22 schools have been treated for mass psychogenic illness in Afghanistan,” says a report from the WHO in late May.
Locals and the government vehemently disagree.
“Girls are being poisoned,” said Nargis Nehan, with Equality for Peace and Democracy, from Kabul. “It’s that simple. There must be something in the water or air that is making these girls sick.”
Neither the World Health Organization nor local officials have found evidence of poison. Tests on the girls have come back negative in all 1,634 cases, according to the WHO report. And no teachers or boys have become sick.
“Hundreds of girls are getting sick, physically sick and have to be taken to the hospital,” said Manizha Naderi, executive director with New York-based Women for Afghan Women. “How can that be mass hysteria?”
Mass hysteria manifests itself in physical symptoms and is a legitimate illness, according to Julio Arboleda-Florez, a psychiatry and epidemiology professor at Queen’s University. But it’s hard to get that message across.
“People have trouble accepting this diagnosis because people aren’t very psychologically sophisticated,” Arboleda-Florez said.