Mass Hysteria Likely in Columbian Illness

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President Juan Manuel Santos of Columbia has released a statement on the recent outbreak of illness that has struck the town of El Carmen de Bolivar. Over 200 school-aged girls, ranging from 9 to 16 years old, in the area have reported coming down with a number of symptoms requiring medical care. The most common of these symptoms are headache, fainting, and numbness in their extremities. President Santos has come out stating that the evidence points to not a contagion or contamination, but rather a form of mass hysteria.

The outbreak has become a focus of international concern as all the girls in the area had recently received a Gardasil vaccine. This is a three part series of inoculation that protects against several common strains of the human papillomavirus. This viral infection can cause a number of cancers and is one of the top causes of cervical cancer. However, the vaccines may become ineffective if the person who receives it has already been exposed to the strains through contact with an infected person. This makes it vital that those who receive that vaccine are under the age of 25, an age restriction that resulted in a backlash in many communities who consider the vaccine a moral risk greater than the risk of cancer.

The young women and girls began to report symptoms in May, with an initially small group claiming illness. The numbers began to expand and, as all the patients had recent Gardasil vaccinations in common, health experts arrived in El Carmen de Bolivar to ensure that the young women had not received a tainted batch of the vaccine or some other infection. As of yet, there appears to be no physical cause behind their symptoms, although further testing may find a non-psychological reason for the outbreak.

If this is a case of mass hysteria, the town would not have been the only location to suffer from this ailment in recent history. In 2012, almost 2000 schoolchildren in Sri Lanka and several teachers began to develop rashes and vertigo. Initially, it was suggested that something in the environment had caused an allergic reaction on a scale not previously seen. Once schools were closed, the symptoms quickly abated. Earlier in the same year, another case had been observed in the United States when a dozen high school girls developed nervous tics.

Mass hysteria, more formally called conversion disorder, has no clear cause. Suffers do not voluntarily elect to begin to demonstrate physical symptoms, nor do they have an awareness of the exact cause of their ailment. As the sufferers sincerely believe they are suffering from a physical disease, and as many patients with unusual symptoms might not have an easily diagnosable illness, it can be very hard to definitively state whether any outbreak is a conversion disorder.

Many in Columbia, and abroad, hope that this outbreak, whatever the cause may be, does not negatively impact the vaccination campaign against HPV. In Columbia alone at least 3000 women a year die due to cervical cancer and it is hoped that the Gardasil vaccine will reduce these numbers in the future. According to most testing and statistical analysis of patients who have received the vaccine, Gardasil is very safe with few side effects. However, like any medical intervention, it can cause side-effects or complications among patients, including weakness and muscle pain.


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