200 Colombian Girls Have Been Rushed To Hospital After A Mass Fainting. But No One Knows What’s Wrong With Them

Is mass hysteria a valid illness?


by Stevie Martin |
Published on

Since May, over 200 girls in Colombia have developed strange symptoms including fainting and numb hands, culminating in a weekend rush of 120 hospitalisations. Thing is, there’s nothing medically wrong with them, so they’ve all been discharged. But as their symptoms are visible, they’re not making them up, either.

Initially, parents and the authorities presumed it was something to do with the face the girls were all injected with new global HPV vaccine Gardasil, but after national health toxicologists travelled to the town and found no links between the two (also, Gardasil is used everywhere, including the UK, with nothing like the side effects experienced in this tiny town), it‘s now suspected to be another, and altogether weirder, condition known as mass psychogenic illness. Or, to use it’s more commonly known name, mass hysteria.

The illness first took root earlier this year, with preteens and teenage girls beginning to feel nauseous, showing signs of fatigue and fainting. Worried parents realised that all of those who had fallen ill had also been vaccinated with Gardasil. And, even more weirdly, as the concern for the girls grew, so did the number of vaccinated 9-16 year-olds suddenly suffering from exactly the same bizarre symptoms.

Health experts have now been called to perform tests to make sure this isn’t some sort of chemical leak after the mystery epidemic reached a peak last weekend that saw 120 girls rushed to hospital, overwhelming the limited medical facilities of the small town, then discharged because they were, medically speaking, fine. Bar the fainting, numbness of the hands, and feeling like they’re about to vomit, of course.


The girls’ parents are refusing to believe that there’s no link between the vaccine and their daughters’ symptoms, and are (peacefully) protesting about the accusations their daughters are suffering from mass hysteria – something they maintain can’t really exist.

READ MORE: Megan Abbott: We’re All Susceptible To Mass Psychogenic Illnesses

Thing is, the numerous cases that have been reported over the years would sort of disagree. It’s rare, yes, but not as uncommon as you might believe. In October 2011, a cheerleader from Le Roy, New York suddenly developed the symptoms of Tourettes – abnormal facial tics, stuttering, verbal outbursts – without actually having the disorder. Thirteen other girls, and one boy, developed exactly the same symptoms and it was believed that the HPV vaccine may have caused this too, but no link was ever found.

In 2006, over 600 girls in an all-girls boarding school in Chalto, Canada also started displaying strange symptoms including an inability to walk, fever and nausea. After extensive testing, doctors put it down to mass hysteria and, once the girls had been taken home, they all became well again.

From the obvious witch-related hysteria in Salem to the lesser well-known week in 1965 during which 141 pupils in Blackburn, Lancashire went down with shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and spasms, there are countless examples of crowds of young people developing mysterious illnesses that can’t be explained on physiological grounds.

Science would also sort of disagree. While mass hysteria is a phenomenon that has baffled medics, academics and concerned parents of the afflicted, it’s definitely not a case of ‘just making things up’. It is, in fact, a case of some seriously intense mind over matter; a handful of people are diagnosed with psychogenic blindness each year and, while there’s nothing physically wrong with their vision, they’re unable to see. Just let that one sink in for a moment.

Another example: an experiment conducted on convicts in the dark ages of psychology involved telling blindfolded criminals that they were going to let their blood run into a sink when, in fact, it was the tap turning on. The criminals would display signs of blood loss, and one even died.

According to Robert E Bartholomew and Bob Rickard, authors of *Mass Hysteria In Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566, *victims of such phenomena are 90% female. Finding a statistic regarding mass hysteria is incredibly difficult, and even this is somewhat skewed towards psychogenic illness within schools. AP Fitzpatrick, however, asserts that patients who suffer from psychogenic fainting ‘are more prone to be female’ in Diagnosis And Management Of Patients With Blackout, and even the most cursory Google around the topic will discover that there’s definitely a predominance among girls.

So what are the root causes for the phenomenon? There’s very little hard research to back up the speculation of medical professionals, but most experts agree that the main triggers are: suggestibility, group mentality, and stress. AP Fitzpatrick agrees that those who, for example, faint for no medical reason ‘commonly have a history of self-harm or self-poisoning, often have a history of childhood abuse, or come from a dysfunctional family background’.

READ MORE: Things You Only Know If You Have Trichotillomania

Females under societal pressure are more susceptible, with those involved in isolated, intense groups even more so. Popular cheerleaders. Girls in a town with a population of 95,000. Girls in a boarding school run by Roman Catholic nuns. Even with the dancing plagues through history, they all came about after famines or long stretches of poverty. It’s this, combined with the threat of some sort of illness, that can trigger a psychological epidemic.

‘Mass psychogenic disorder is a phenomenon that can be understood as resulting, in part, from the nocebo effect,’ writes Jacob Silverman, for howstuffworks. ‘Think of the nocebo effect as the opposite of the placebo effect. Instead of good thoughts or associations producing a positive outcome, bad thoughts and associations produce bad results.’

He cites the early 1990s study reported by The Washington Post where women who believed they were prone to heart disease turned out to be four times more likely to die than women who didn’t believe they were susceptible, even though both groups of women had similar risk factors. ‘The study showed that when people feel that they have been exposed to a contaminant or a disease – or that they are predisposed to becoming sick – they are more likely to develop symptoms,’ he adds.

In the meantime, it’s likely that they won’t find any chemical spills or medical reasons for the 200 girls from Colombia. And even more likely that exactly the same phenomena will strike somewhere else in the world. Probably in a close-knit community, and probablly all girls.

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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