[ by Charles Cameron — Reuters publishes scary stuff, should have checked their facts with WHO epidemiologists first ]
Last time, it was the Jerusalem syndrome — this time it’s mass hysteria, not poison.
The Reuters article, Afghan girls’ school feared hit by poison gas by Folad Hamdard (upper frame, above) was posted on April 21, 2013, just one week ago.
Its key paragraphs in terms of etiology and blame are these:
As many as 74 schoolgirls in Afghanistan’s far north fell sick after smelling gas and were being examined for possible poisoning, local officials said on Sunday.
While instances of poisoning are sometimes later found to be false alarms, there have been numerous substantiated cases of mass poisonings of schoolgirls by elements of Afghanistan’s ultra-conservative society that are opposed to female education.
Between May and June last year there were four poisoning attacks on a girls’ school in Takhar, prompting local officials to order principals to stay in school until late and staff to search the grounds for suspicious objects and to test the water for contaminants.
Takhar has been a hotbed of militancy and criminal activity since 2009, with groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan active.
One wonders: Does Reuters employ fact checkers?
One wonders because…
An Editorial Note on the 2012 article Mass Psychogenic illness in Afghanistan (lower frame, above) in the WHO’s Weekly Epidemiological Monitor (Vol 5 # 22, 27 May) reads in part:
This is the fourth year where episodes of suspected mass poisoning of school girls is reported from Afghanistan. Like in the previous years the events are triggered off with one girl developing symptoms of headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea and fainting. Often these outbreaks were believed to be the work of political elements in the country who oppose girls education. Reports of stench smells preceding the appearance of symptoms have given credit to the theory of mass poisoning (chemical/bioterrorism). However, investigations into the causes of these outbreaks have yielded no such evidence so far. In the last four years over 1634 cases from 22 schools have been treated for Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) in Afghanistan. There are no related deaths reported.
Reuters is read by a whole lot more people than some WHO epidemiological weekly, eh?
Luckily, the NY Times at least posted a blog post by Matthieu Aikins writing from Kabul, The ‘Poisoned’ Girls of Afghanistan, by way of alerting us to the WHO report:
I’m willing to bet that there was no poison.
Over the past few years, thousands of girls have fallen victim to waves of alleged poisonings in Afghan schools. The government, media and education activists have blamed the Taliban, and the police in a number of provinces have produced the “guilty” parties, with some of them confessing on national television.
But last July when I investigated the subject for Newsweek, I discovered never-released reports showing that the United Nations, the World Health Organization and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force had investigated the incidents for years and had never found, despite extensive laboratory tests, any evidence of toxins or poisoning — a fact that may explain ISAF’s conspicuous silence on the issue.
I’m glad that’s been cleared up.
Here’s another DoubleQuote for you:
Of course, the Taliban spokesman was addressing a 2012 outbreak of the same hysteria story, and the “no claim of responsibility” report is from one of this year’s versions.
But why would anyone claim responsibility in any case, if the actual cause is mass hysteria rather than poisoning? There’s history to these things — they didn’t begin in Afghanistan:
The cases the Afghanistan incidents most resemble are the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, in which hundreds of people, mostly schoolgirls, were overcome by fits of mirthless, extended laughter, in what is now known as Tanzania, and the West Bank fainting epidemic of 1983.
The similarities between the heavily studied epidemic in the occupied West Bank and Afghanistan are particularly striking. Both places are in a state of conflict, where political violence is a fact of life, and both have powerful local rumor mills. The incidents follow a similar pattern: First a single report of a bad smell, then a small number of girls come down with symptoms, then it spreads. Local media fueled the rumors and the incidents spread in Afghanistan, just as they did in Israel and Palestine.
Albert Hefez, Israel’s lead psychiatric investigator of the incident, wrote in his 1985 study “The Role of the Press and the Medical Community in the epidemic of ‘Mysterious Gas Poisoning’ in the Jordan West Bank” that Israeli newspaper reports of “poisoning” at the start of the epidemic added fuel to the flames. A front page article in Haaretz on March 28, 1983 even claimed that Israeli military investigators had found traces of nerve gas and quoted “army sources” as saying they suspected Palestinian militants were poisoning their own people in order to blame Israel and provoke an uprising. Palestinian leaders followed up with accusations that Israel had poisoned them in an attempt to drive them from the West Bank.
And such things don’t only happen “abroad” — as detailed in that same NYT blog post I quoted above:
The phenomenon of groups of people falling ill for psychological, rather than physical, reasons is not unknown, nor is it limited to Afghanistan. Moreover, the typical victims are school-age girls. In late 2011, when a group of girls in Le Roy, New York, fell victim to a mysterious twitching illness, medical authorities eventually concluded it was psychogenic.