April 25, 2010


Afghan schoolgirls poisoned by Taliban?: 'A smell like a flower reached my nose,' says hospitalized girl (MSNBC, 4/25/10)

More than 80 schoolgirls have fallen ill in three cases of mass sickness over the past week in northern Afghanistan, raising fears that militants who oppose education for girls are using poison to scare them away from school.

The latest case occurred Sunday when 13 girls became sick at school, Kunduz provincial spokesman Mahbobullah Sayedi said. Another 47 complained of dizziness and nausea on Saturday, and 23 got sick last Wednesday. All complained of a strange smell in class before they fell ill.

None of the illnesses have been serious, and medical officials were still investigating the exact cause. The Health Ministry in Kunduz said blood samples were inconclusive and were being sent to Kabul for further testing. [...]

Last year, dozens of schoolgirls were hospitalized in Kapisa province, just northeast of Kabul, after collapsing with headaches and nausea. An unusual smell filled the schoolyard before the students fell ill. The Taliban was blamed, but research into similar mass sickenings elsewhere has suggested that some might be the result of group hysteria.

Nicaragua’s Crazy Sickness: An indigenous community grapples with a mysterious ailment (Nicola Ross, June 2006, The Walrus)
The Miskitus, a group indigenous to the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and Honduras, don’t have a word for mental illness. Instead, ailing people are thought to be out of balance with the spirits. Grisi siknis, the Miskitus’ best attempt at a phonetic spelling of “crazy sickness,” causes those afflicted—mostly young Miskitu women—to alternate between a trancelike state of semi-consciousness and periods of frenzied behaviour. During the latter, victims often rip off their clothes, flee into the forest or the murky, fast-flowing river, and appear to develop superhuman strength. In such a crazed state, these women are difficult to stop. With their eyes closed, and armed with machetes or sticks, they think nothing of attacking whoever or whatever stands between them and the mysterious force that beckons.

In this region, there are accounts of entire villages being ransacked during a grisi siknis outbreak, when as many as a quarter of a town’s inhabitants, including women of all ages and a few men, become afflicted and may remain so for months. Patients are tied up with ropes to prevent them from running amok. [...]

Many psychiatrists believe that grisi siknis belongs to a class of disorders commonly known as “culture-bound syndromes.” In the November 2001 issue of Psychiatric Times, Dr. Ronald C. Simons, professor emeritus of psychiatry and anthropology at Michigan State University, wrote, “In theory, culture-bound syndromes are those folk illnesses in which alterations of behaviour and experience figure prominently. In actuality, however, many are not syndromes at all. Instead, they are local ways of explaining any of a wide assortment of misfortunes.” Later he adds, “However, some culture-bound syndromes are indeed syndromes.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV of the American Psychiatric Association contains a glossary of twenty-five culture-bound syndromes. There’s pibloktoq, a disorder similar to grisi siknis unique to the Inuit, and the suitably named amok, which is particular to Malaysians and involves periods of brooding followed by outbursts of violent, aggressive, or homicidal behaviour. There’s dhat in India, characterized by large losses of semen in men, who feel weak as a result. In Japan, taijin kyofusho causes people to have an intense fear of their own bodies, and in Southeast Asia men and women suffer from koro, which is the fear that one’s sexual appendages are being withdrawn into the body and will be lost. Bulimia and anorexia nervosa are our very own Western culture-bound syndromes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 25, 2010 6:13 PM
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