NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

More On Hysteria

January 21, 2000

Mass hysteria is more common than most doctors believe, says physician Lawrence K. Altman in the New York Times. And outbreaks did not end with the Salem witch trials. But today, triggers for outbreaks are less likely to be fears of demonic possession or witchcraft than fear of exposure to hazardous substances and toxic pollutants.

There is not much in standard medical textbooks about it; but the New England Journal of Medicine recently reported on a 1998 outbreak in a high school in Tennessee. Some other documented incidents are:

  • During a true epidemic of poliomyelitis in Los Angeles in 1934, nurses caring for the patients at Los Angeles County Hospital thought they, too, had developed polio.
  • In 1944, a flurry of people in Mattoon, Ill., reported becoming paralyzed after a man squirted them with a gas.
  • In 1956, a report in Lancet raised the possibility that staff members of a hospital in London had developed a new type of encephalitis; but a reanalysis published in the British Medical Journal in 1970 showed that the outbreak was mass hysteria, which the Lancet authors had not considered.

Researchers are suspicious in other cases. For instance, in Belgium last year, 250 people, including many school-children, complained of sickness after drinking Coca-Cola. Although most of the children recovered quickly, parents say that some still suffer from headaches, knee pain and exhaustion.

But suspicions of mass hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness, are rarely confirmed, because it is generally diagnosed by excluding all known infectious and noxious agents, which is a costly process.

Source: Lawrence K. Altman, "Mysterious Illnesses Often Turn Out to Be Mass Hysteria," New York Times, January 18, 2000.


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