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Aug 27th, 2010

A total of 46 students and nine teachers have been treated in a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, after what an official at the education ministry described as “an apparent poisoning” attack by “the enemies of women’s education.”

This is not the first time an event of this nature has occurred in Aghanistan. Similar “attacks” were reported earlier this year, in April and June 2010, and before that in May 2009.

Within its sociocultural context, the epidemiological pattern of the reported illnesses bears the hallmark of a group psychological reaction known as mass hysteria. As I wrote on April 25 and June 12, “Authorities would be well advised to investigate alleged poison gas attacks as possible cases of mass hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness.”


Taliban Poison Attack or Mass Hysteria? Chaos Hits Another Kabul Girls’ School

Dozens of pupils treated in hospital as Afghan militants accused of poison attack on girls

Afghan schoolgirls after suspected poison attack
Afghan schoolgirls suffering from suspected poisoning are taken to hospital in Kabul. (Photo credit: Shah Marai / AFP — Getty Images)

By Jon Boone
The Guardian home
August 25, 2010

When the order came to evacuate the Totia high school, hundreds of girls ran from their desks clutching handkerchiefs and their headscarves over their mouths. School bags were abandoned as some leapt out of the ground floor windows of their dilapidated two-storey school block rather than trying to push their way through a melee of teenage girls all rushing to get out to fresh air.

Teachers tried to organise an orderly departure but their efforts were in vain amid rising panic that the school had become the latest in Afghanistan to be hit by an apparent poison gas attack.

A total of 46 students and nine teachers were treated in hospital after what Mohammad Asif Nang, an official at the education ministry, described as “an apparent poisoning” attack by “the enemies of women’s education.”

According to staff, parents and onlookers, girls began fainting in the school’s main classroom block at about 10.30 this morning, during the first of three daily shifts designed to triple the number of girls at the school.

Some victims had to be carried out while others stumbled to the school gates, where about 18 slumped to the ground unconscious, said Abdul Haq, a 15-year-old boy who witnessed the incident.

Many were taken to hospital and most quickly recovered but some girls remained unconscious for several hours, doctors said. Others were vomiting and complaining of nausea.

The symptoms matched those of other cases reported around the country. Opinions are divided between those who denounce the incidents as malicious attacks by social conservatives who disapprove of female education and sceptics who think the culprit is more likely to be mass hysteria.

At the Boost hospital, the head doctor, Abdullah Abid, said four of the 22 girls admitted remained unconscious for at least two hours.

“An ordinary doctor in a hospital cannot say exactly what causes this without further tests, but I think poisoned gas is most likely,” he said. “It has happened many times before in Afghanistan.”

He said that after studying psychiatry for a year in Pakistan he had become acutely aware of the power of hysteria and its ability to cause physiological responses, but he did not think that was the cause of the latest incident.

“I think three of them were just suffering from shock from seeing their friends become ill. But something else must have happened to the others.”

Education ministry officials said five similar cases had been dealt with in Kabul this year alone and eleven more around the country.

The Taliban banned girls’ education when they were in power between 1996 and 2001 and they continue to target women and girls’ schools in the areas they control.

One of their intimidation techniques is the so-called “night letters” dropped off at homes and schools. In one case in a northern province in February a letter, which was handed to Human Rights Watch, said the school was misleading “pure and innocent girls.”

With Taliban violence surging across the country, the fear of insurgent attacks is becoming a bigger concern for ordinary Afghans, even in relatively secure cities such as Kabul.

The existence of such fears, as documented by cases in Mexico and Kosovo, can trigger mass hysteria accompanied by actual physical illness, experts say. The large number of attacks against schools reported in the Afghan media could exacerbate the problem of fretful students believing they have been poisoned.

This morning Totia high school was crowded with girls aged between 16 and 18 but witnesses did not report the presence of any strangers. The authorities are investigating.

Lal Mohammad, the school’s caretaker, said nothing untoward had been found so far. The only thing unusual was a nauseating smell, apparently similar to that of human sewage, which greeted the students when they arrived in the morning.

“It was so bad that the head said we must tell the neighbouring houses that they should only clear out their shit at the night time,” Mohammad said.

As the smell got much worse panic spread through the building, he said.

All the classroom doors along the corridor were open and the complaints of dizziness and fainting moved quickly from end of the building to the other, Mohammad said.

Western medical experts have taken blood samples from alleged victims while investigating previous incidents but have been unable to find clear evidence of poisoning. They have also questioned how such an apparently powerful gas could be spread with such apparent ease round large school buildings.

In today’s incident some girls first displayed symptoms long after everyone else. Massoud Mohammad, an 18-year-old with a younger sister at the school, said two girls only fainted some time after they had returned home and changed out of their school clothes.

But in the largely Pashtun neighbourhood in a rough area of eastern Kabul no one believed the incident was anything other than a chemical attack by people who object to female education.

“These people are not Muslims,” said Mohammad Shamin, who rushed to hospital from work to see his 14-year-old daughter, who had been taken there after feeling dizzy.

“There is nothing in Islam that says you can attack girls.”

Classroom attacks

2009 — Five girls briefly slipped into comas and nearly 100 other pupils needed treatment after an alleged gas attack on their school. The victims were vomiting and dizzy, and some lost consciousness. Taliban sympathisers hostile to girls’ education were blamed.

2008 — In Logar province a primary school was targeted by arsonists intent on preventing local girls being taught. The suspected Taliban raiders were thwarted by a gang of fathers who chased them away.

February 2006 — Armed gunmen walked through the school gates of Kartilaya school in Lashkar Gar and killed several pupils. The school consisted of mostly female students.

January 2006 — A male teacher was dragged into the courtyard of a co-educational school and beheaded by suspected Taliban militants in Zabul province. The school had received threats for continuing to teach girls.

2002 — Taliban sympathisers fired rockets at several schools in the Wardak province, near Kabul, as part of a sustained effort to stop parents from sending their daughters to study. They also raided a school at a village mosque, setting fire to chairs and blackboard.


Index case?

84 Afghan schoolgirls hospitalized in alleged poisoning (USA Today, May 12, 2009) – The sickness could be a result of group hysteria. A Parwan education official said they had not found any evidence of an attack in the incident. He said one student had fallen seriously ill before the others and suggested that some of the illnesses could have been psychological. Research has borne out the possibility of a psychological cause. At a Tennessee school in 1998, dozens were hospitalized for dizziness, headaches, nausea, and shortness of breath after a teacher noticed a gasoline smell in a classroom, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study found that there had been no toxic exposure and that the sickness appeared to be psychological, noting that the symptoms were subjective. … Full story


1/17/2012 Update — Topical report

Teen Girls’ Medical Mystery Baffles Doctors


School baffled by 12 girls’ mystery symptoms (NBC “Today,” Jan. 17, 2012) — TODAY’s Ann Curry talks with two of 12 high school girls who have been mysteriously afflicted with Tourette-like symptoms. Medical contributor Dr. Gail Saltz weighs in and NBC’s Amy Robach reports. (06:51)

By Scott Stump

January 17, 2012

High school cheerleader and art student Thera Sanchez  took a quick nap one day last October, and when she woke up, the life she had known was gone.

In its place, she was plagued by uncontrollable body movements, tics and verbal outbursts, similar to Tourette’s syndrome. It turned out Sanchez was not alone, as she is one of 12 girls from LeRoy Junior-Senior High School in upstate New York who has been exhibiting symptoms of a mysterious condition that has baffled doctors.

“I’m very angry,” Sanchez told TODAY’s Ann Curry during an interview Tuesday. “I’m very frustrated. No one’s giving me answers.” …

[S]tate health officials determined that nothing at the high school itself could have triggered the mass illness. Each girl has been examined by a private doctor and given a diagnosis. After a three-and-a-half month investigation, health officials ruled out carbon monoxide, illegal drugs and other factors as potential causes.  Officials say no one at the school is in any danger.

“We have conclusively ruled out any form of infection or communicable disease and there’s no evidence of any environmental factor,” Dr. Gregory Young of the New York Department of Health told NBC News. …

The girls did not say what diagnosis they have been given, only that doctors have told them the onset of their symptoms was stress-related.

Sanchez, a 17-year-old senior and former cheerleader, displayed uncontrollable movements and verbal tics during the interview, while the symptoms of [Katie] Krautwurst, a high school junior, were not as pronounced. …

On Oct. 7, Sanchez took a power nap, and when she woke up, she started stuttering uncontrollably and has been exhibiting her symptoms ever since, according to her mother. Since then, she has quit cheerleading and regularly attending her beloved art classes. …

Psychologist and TODAY contributor Gail Saltz said she could not make any specific diagnosis having just met the girls, but she stressed that just because the cause may be psychological doesn’t mean the symptoms – or the pain the girls are experiencing – is fake.

“When you’ve ruled everything out and they’re saying to you it’s stress-related, then you might call it something called ‘conversion disorder’ or ‘psychosomatic illness,’ which means that symptoms have been converted from something psychological into something physical,” Saltz said. “It usually is predated by stress.”

“That’s not faking it. They’re real symptoms,” Saltz continued. “They need a psychiatric or psychological treatment. Treatment does work.” …

Full story


2/5/2012 Update

Activist Erin Brockovich is investigating whether environmental factors are causing the rash of illnesses.
Since October 2011, sixteen people have developed uncontrollable twitching and verbal tics. Doctors have diagnosed most of them with conversion disorder, saying that stress is the likely root of their physical problems. Activist Erin Brockovich is investigating whether environmental factors are causing the rash of illnesses. (Photo credit: CNN)

N.Y. town still baffled by teens’ mysterious tics
(Steve Almasy and Jim Spellman, CNN, Feb. 5, 2012)


Related reports on this site

Image: Girl in hospital bed
A medic at the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, checks on one of the hospitalized schoolgirls. (Photo credit: Fulad Hamdard / AP)

Gas Attack or Mass Hysteria? (June 12, 2010)

Poison Gas or Mass Hysteria? (April 25, 2010)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — August 27, 2009

Ron Paul Converts Michele Bachmann

One year ago today, I reported that Rep. Michele Bachmann announced a joint town hall forum with Rep. Ron Paul as her guest. I also reported a summer of setbacks for the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan, with rising casualties, a divisive election, and growing public doubt about the war.


FROM THE ARCHIVES: Two Years Ago — August 27, 2008

On the Campaign Trail: Day 44

Two years ago today, on the 44th day of my 2008 campaign against U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, I traveled to White Bear Lake to record a candidate statement for the Ramsey / Washington County Suburban Cable Commission, through its Government Television Network (GTN). I also reported on the high human and economic cost of the Iraq war.

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