This is what looks to be a textbook case of mass psychogenic illness (crudely known as “mass hysteria”). It is extremely common in schools, the symptoms are vague and non-life threatening and can be psychogenic. The cause is always suspected to be an environmental or medical factor. In this case, the fear of the moment is the Gardasil vaccine.
A mystery illness has overwhelmed a small town in northern Colombia as scores of teenage girls have been hospitalized with symptoms that parents fear could be an adverse reaction to a popular vaccine against cervical cancer.
Authorities say they still don’t know what caused more than 200 girls in El Carmen de Bolivar to come down with symptoms ranging from fainting to numbness in the hands and headaches. Some have hinted that the town of 95,000 near Colombia’s Caribbean coast could be experiencing a rare case of mass hysteria.
The victims range in age from 9 to 16. It is said they received the vaccine. But it is not clear if this is true. Many details are missing. Regardless, the vaccination, widely administered worldwide is safe. The residents have asked for an investigation. Health experts are collecting blood samples and testing for environmental hazards. Odds are, they won’t find any. The health officials are also echoing assurances that the vaccine is safe, there is zero evidence that it causes adverse wide scale side effects.
But mass reaction IS a well-known side effect of social children who have a fear filter through their community. The list of such events is long. Vaccine harm is easily identifiable. Environmental contamination leaves traces. This menace, not so much.
Dr. Steve Novella wrote about the known disorder in relation to the widely publicized event in Leroy, NY.
Neurologists see patients with conversion disorder frequently, and it can be positively demonstrated in many cases that the neurological symptoms are not due to any damage or lesion in the nervous system but to psychological stress. For example, it can be demonstrated in someone with psychogenic blindness that their visual system actually works. Many patients with psychogenic seizures display features that are neuroanatomically impossible to be due to actual seizures.
It is always challenging to deal with such patients. We try very hard to accurately and constructively convey to patients and their families what is happening, but unfortunately there is an undeserved stigma attached to psychological ailments in our culture and many patients resist such a diagnosis. We tend to focus on the positive – psychogenic symptoms can completely get better on their own (and usually do with encouragement and reassurance) because there is no irreversible damage to the nervous system.
Because that was also in a population of teen girls, the HPV virus vaccine was also suspected. It spread via Facebook. Not kidding.
See many more stories about incidents of mass psychogenic illness here.