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Mystery Illness

Published on February 23, 2012 by in Columns

Something strange is afoot in Le Roy, New York, a small community of nearly 8,000 in the western part of the state.  You may have seen them on TV—about 15 teenagers, students of Le Roy Junior-Senior High School, who have almost-simultaneously developed tic-like symptoms, facial and muscular twitches, verbal outbursts, and similar, Tourette-like symptoms.

Katie Krautwurst

Katie Krautwurst is a cheerleader. She was among the first to start exhibiting symptoms.

No one knows what is causing the epidemic, but several theories abound.  The students—at last count, 14 girls and one boy—did not all know each other (though some did), and no commonality connects them all, except for their community and school.  Some early theories that arose have already been ruled out.  For example, some blamed the symptoms on Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, but not all of the affected students were exposed.  Another early theory was that a neuropsychiatric association called PANDAS, which stands for “pediatric autoimmune neurospsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infection,” could have triggered the disorder.

I know, it sounds complicated.  It’s not.  A few years ago, some pediatricians noticed a trend.  Some patients who began showing symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tourette’s Syndrome had recently overcome a bacterial infection, typically streptococcal.  That’s it.  The association between the two, that perceived link, is called PANDAS.  However, in this case, there simply weren’t enough bacterial infections in the afflicted students to support this explanation, and it has reportedly been ruled out.

So what remains?  Well, there are a few possibilities.  One theory that’s still being investigated is called Conversion Disorder.  (You only think you haven’t heard of it.  It used to be called mass hysteria.)  To my mind, this is the most intriguing explanation.  Mass hysteria is a fascinating phenomenon, a psychological epidemic.  Here’s how it works:  Imagine a football game in late August.  It’s a very hot day, and the crowd is enormous.  Suddenly, there’s a strange smell in the air—like methane, or natural gas—not overpowering, but noticeable.  Simultaneously, a player on the sidelines passes out, because of the heat, or dehydration, or exhaustion.  Mass hysteria takes over.  The crowd assumes that they’re being poisoned, because of the smell.  They start developing symptoms: fainting, nausea, hyperventilation, or maybe twitches.

Mass hysteria usually starts with a “patient zero,” referred to as an index case.  This person, in the example above, would be the fainting player.  Their condition might be real or imagined, but when it’s witnessed by a group that thinks they too are at risk, the epidemic begins.  No index case has yet been identified in Le Roy.

Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich, the famed environmental activist, has begun investigating the case.

While some doctors have already diagnosed the epidemic as Conversion Disorder, or mass hysteria, such an assumption may be premature.  Enter Erin Brockovich.  Yes, THAT Erin Brockovich, the real-life legal clerk turned environmental activist that Julia Roberts played in the movie.  You’ll recall that Brockovich investigated Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) for contaminating the drinking water of Hinkley, CA, with hexavalent chromium.  She linked the toxin to a cluster of cancer cases in the area, and the case was settled for a whopping $333 million.

Brockovich now has environmental concerns about Le Roy, NY, and has begun investigating the case.  She claims that, in 1970, a train derailed about three miles from the school, spilling about a ton of cyanide and thousands of gallons of trichloroethene (TCE).  The state department of health has investigated, and has found no cause for concern.  The school district also conducted an independent investigation, which revealed no environmental toxins.  It should be noted that the school uses city water, so one would anticipate a much less confined epidemic if polluted water was at fault.

I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of this story.  If you’re looking for something to do this weekend, look up some cases of mass hysteria on the internet, and prepare to have your mind blown.

Originally printed in “Pulse,” 02/23/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012.  All rights reserved.

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