You may remember the particularly bizarre version of alleged mass hysteria allegedly being spread via social media in a New York High School. A group of about 12 teenage girls and one female adult had come down with a bizarre Tourette’s-like illness characterised by ticks, twitching and uncontrolled verbal outbursts. The girls had been posting videos of themselves on Youtube and authorities were concerned that this was a form of transmission for what they believed to be a conversion disorder. To be clear – this doesn’t mean that they are faking the symptoms, only that the symptoms are psychological in origin. We humans are suggestible beings.
Well, it appears that as mysteriously as it began, victims are recovering. But just as the cause was the subject of speculation and disagreement, so is the treatment. Nothing like a mysterious epidemic affecting teenage girls to bring out the feeding frenzy – medical and media.
Some girls are recovering after behavioural modification, psychological help and medication for anti-anxiety, depression and headaches by Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, medical director at DENT Neurologic Institute in western New York. Others have been treated with antibiotics after being diagnosed with PANDAS – Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections by Dr. Rosario Trifiletti, a child neurologist from New Jersey. And as with all good stories, it is not clear how many girls are being treated in each treatment group, or the recovery rates for each group. Both groups claim success.
Well-known environmental campaigner Erin Brokovich has also been on the case investigating whether cyanide and trichloroethylene (TCE) that was spilled a few miles from the school following a train wreck in December 1970. Parents invited Ms Brokovich to investigate environmental options after disputing psychological causes. The State Health Department had done soil testing and testing on the building, as well as considering illegal drugs and infectious diseases when the symptoms first emerged and announced negative results. I guess given her well-publicised background, Ms Brokovich probably doesn’t want to take that at face value. Her team will continue testing samples from around the school after being denied permission to take samples on school grounds.
(TCE exposure does have recognised psychological side-effects although they do not closely correlate with the reported symptoms of the girls. TCE affects the central nervous system and can cause drowsiness, difficulty moving and headaches. Psychological effects of cyanide include sluggishness, convulsions, coma. No information was found in my brief search regarding the combination of TCE and Cyanide on the nervous system.)
However, the question has to be asked – if it is due to environmental toxins from the train wreck, why now 41 years later, why only a few girls at the high school (not boys, not even all the girls, not the whole school, not teachers who may have taught there for many years and would presumably have had a much greater exposure to any environmental toxins). And if it is PANDAS – why is this surely quite rare side effect of strep throat suddenly showing up in a larger than usual number of cases?
If, as it seems from reading about this case and from my non-clinical standpoint, the diagnosis of mass hysteria turns out to be correct, despite the unpalatableness of a psychological cause to some students and parents, the up-side is that it is recoverable. So while it is important to ensure there is nothing more sinister going on and there are no toxins or other disease mechanisms causing this illness, a treatable psychological diagnosis would be the best outcome for those affected. And a level of anonymity that has perhaps not been happening so far with the posting of You-tube videos and the media attention.