- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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,''