Hundreds struck down by social contagion

By Helen Petousis Harris 03/09/2014


OMG!! Hundreds of Columbian girls have been struck down after receiving the HPV vaccine. So what has this got to do with biting nuns, alien attacks and Dr Sarah Potts?

Columbian hysteria
Clip from Dominian Post last week

Remember War of the Worlds in 1938? (No, neither do I.) However when it first aired on radio some say a mass panic ensued, many listeners who tuned in after the beginning of the programme believed we were under alien attack. Others say the hysteria was overstated and the phenomenon was simply a media-driven myth. I guess either way the effect is quite profound.

War of the worlds

So is it a venomous vaccine or a mass sociogenic illness (a condition that spreads within a social group, but does not seem to have a common organic cause)?

Unfortunately the girly mag Cosmo is rather thoughtlessly reporting that “200 Columbian girls have fallen ill with a mysterious illness and that the puzzling symptoms are feared to have resulted from a bad reaction to a cervical cancer vaccination” . This is the same mag that on its front page features “Jennifer Lawrence Scandal: 100+ Nude Photos Hacked, Leaked and Online”, Miley pretending her vagina has teeth (seriously) and “Burning Man Erection Contests are Really Hard”. Here is the link if you are inclined and feel you need the education.

The features of mass sociogenic illness – in this case mass anxiety hysteria – include a constellation of physical symptoms in groups of people suggesting organic illness but resulting from psychological cause, each member of the group experiencing one or more symptoms in the absence of other findings (physical, laboratory etc.).

Classic factors that contribute to these ‘outbreaks’ include the gathering of people under stress, belief in physical cause of contaminant, people seeing or hearing about other affected people and even compensation issues.

History can teach us a few things about just how potent these forces are. Documented events go back at least as early as the Middle Ages when young girls forced into nunneries and subjected to lengthy fasting, confined living, floggings and other stressors became possessed by demons, exhibiting foul language, blasphemy, lewd acts and animal behaviour. It even included nun-biting.

Nun meow

In the late 19th – early 20th Century strict European boarding schools in Germany, Switzerland and France reported outbreaks of convulsions, trembling, laughing, fits and paralysis. Similar outbreaks occurred in the 1980s at an all-female Muslim boarding school in Malaysia and local healers were even summoned to exorcise the demons (this almost ended badly – the girls took the exorcist at knife point!).

In contrast to responses to stressful situations, mass anxiety outbreaks have tended to be dominated by environmental concerns such as food, water quality, the air (for example strange odours) and….vaccinations. The literature is peppered with examples of such outbreaks.

Getting back to the fainting girls….On May 7th 2007, 26 girls from a Catholic school in Melbourne presented to school sickbay with symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, palpitations paraesthesia, progressive muscle weakness…within two hours of vaccination with HPV vaccine. Some were transported to hospital by ambulance. No organic cause for the symptoms could be identified. And really, other than an allergic reaction there is little trouble a vaccine could cause within two hours – it just isn’t really biologically plausible. So what happened? It turned out that although the vaccines were administered to the girls without others watching, each of the girls who developed symptoms were taken to sick bay via full view of all classrooms. Click here for the MJA report on this event.

…..and just this week the nation went into mourning for the death of Shortland Street’s Dr Sarah Potts who was struck down by a deadly virus. Folks I hate to tell you but she is a fictitious character and it was all just pretend but looking at twitter it would appear there is a mass outpouring of grief going on…