Mass Hysteria May Be Rising

BOSTON (Reuters) - Outbreaks of mass hysteria, including fears of poison gases in the air, may be on the rise and traditional efforts to combat them may only make them worse, an article in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine found.
Researchers said it was likely that as fear of bioterrorism or environmental toxins rose, outbreaks of short-term, widespread, psychogenic illness were likely to increase.
The team found that many doctors called upon to investigate a mass outbreak of illness often suspect hysteria but feel obliged to conduct probes because of anxiety in the community.
It also found the investigation itself, and accompanying coverage by news media, can make the situation worse.
``Dramatic and prolonged media coverage frequently enhances such outbreaks,'' researchers said.
The team, which found that intense investigations and the attention they drew could heighten worry in a community, recommended that officials' make a return to normality in the affected community their main goal.
In a study of a November 1998 outbreak of illness at Warren County High School in McMinnville, Tennessee, Dr. Timothy Jones of the Tennessee Department of Health and his team found no evidence of any medical or environmental cause for the sickness, which affected about 186 people in two incidents.
The first incident started when a teacher at the school reported a ``gasoline-like'' odor in her classroom. Shortly thereafter she became sick. Other students also got sick and were taken to the hospital. The school was then closed.
Symptoms included headache, dizziness, nausea, drowsiness, vomiting and many others. They were reported by students all around the school.
A second rash of cases occurred a week later, a day after the school reopened, again resulting in the closure of the facility. After the second incident an extensive environmental and epidemiological investigation was launched.
While Jones and his team emphasized that the symptoms reported by victims were no doubt real, they still said they were probably a case of mass hysteria.
``The pattern of illness in the school did not reflect a particular route of air distribution,'' it said.
``It is difficult to conceive of any toxic gas or other toxic substance in the environment that would account for such variations in the description and location of the odor and for such a wide range of self-limited symptoms in persons scattered throughout a large building, with no evidence of abnormalities in any environmental or laboratory tests,'' they said.


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