Mystery Illness In Colombia: No One Can Explain Why Over 200 Young Girls Have Fallen Ill In One Small Town

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Some categorize the situation in Colombia as mass hysteria, others a reaction to vaccine for HPV. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Over 200 girls living in El Carmen, Colombia have been in the hospital suffering from nausea, abdominal pain, and numbness in hands since May — and Juan Miguel Santos, the country’s president, said it’s probably mass hysteria.

Hysteria, as reported by Psychology Today, is also known as mass psychological illness. It’s a result of psychological stress and anxiety. Fainting and hyperventilation are common symptoms, affecting mostly children and teens, and cases of such date back to the Middle Ages.

More recently, hysteria was suspected in Le Roy, N.Y., when girls of the same age mysteriously fell ill back in 2012. The two situations are so similar that The Daily Beast reported Colombia has been considered to have a “Le Roy problem.” Coincidentally, like Le Roy, the Colombian village was introduced to a vaccine that helps to protect against human papilloma virus (HPV). Though harmful side effects of HPV vaccinations are extremely rare, they’re still possible. Just last month the shot was suspected to have killed a 12-year-old girl from Waukesha, Wis.

Could this hysteria really be a bad reaction to the vaccine? “We have invested $100 million into this vaccination program,” President Santos told Colombia Reports. “We are the leading country in vaccinating children. It contributes toward equality and public health so that the poor have the same opportunities as the rich.”

Of course, the president wouldn’t be the first to admit it. It’s just easier to write the girls off as severely stressed since stress is what a lot of teenagers do. According to the American Psychological Association, 31 percent of teens say their stress level has increased since 2013 while 83 percent cite school as significant source of stress.

Again, negative, even fatal side effects from HPV vaccines are unlikely. Yet, if it turns out that these girls are overly stressed and anxious, they should not be written off. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers, and stress, anxiety, as well as depression increase these odds. Waving a dismissive hand only promotes the stigma surrounding mental health care, preventing these girls and their families from getting proper treatment. It’s equally problematic.

 “Who is responsible for my daughters?” Leanis Salcedo, mother of four daughters who all contracted the mystery illness, told Colombia Reports. “They have not even given us proper treatment. I don’t ask for money and I do not want them to give me anything; all I want is to see [my daughters] healthy. Is that too much to ask?”

Editor's note: An original version of this article cited research from the Focus Autism Foundation that is no longer included in the journal it first appeared in.

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