“At least 84 Afghan girls were admitted to a hospital Tuesday for headaches and vomiting in the third apparent poison attack on a girls school in as many weeks, officials and doctors said.”

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That’s a sentence from this frightening NYT article.   Here’s another excerpt:

Tuesday’s apparent attack is the third alleged poisoning at a girls’ school in less than three weeks. It comes one day after 61 schoolgirls and one teacher from a school in neighboring Parwan province were admitted to a hospital after complaining of sudden illness. They were irritable, confused and weeping, and several of the girls passed out.

The first apparent poison attack took place late last month in Parwan, when dozens of girls were hospitalized after being sickened by what Afghan officials said were strong fumes or a possible poison gas cloud.

The patients in Kapisa complained of similar symptoms to those in the Parwan incidents — headaches, vomiting and shivering, said Aziz Agha, a doctor treating the girls.

Interior Ministry Spokesman Zemeri Bashary said officials suspect some sort of gas poisoning, and that police were still investigating. Hospital officials said blood samples had been sent to medical authorities in Kabul for testing.

But then the reporter suggests that maybe this time the illness is all in the girls’ heads:

Scores of Afghan schools have been forced to close because of violence. Still, the three recent apparent poisonings have taken place in northeast Afghanistan, which is not as opposed to education for girls as Afghanistan’s conservative southern regions.

But with no group claiming responsibility, the sicknesses could be a result of a group hysteria sparked by one student’s illness. An education official for Parwan province said they had not found any evidence of an attack in Tuesday’s incident. He said one student fell ill before the others and suggested that some of the illnesses could have been psychological.

Given that “scores” of girls’ schools have suffered violence, even if no pathogen is isolated in this case, is it really legitimate to call the fear the students are experiencing “group hysteria”? Or to suggest “research” bears out the possibility, and then (as this author dies) to reference a study that took place in Tennessee on 1998, where the social climate was very different?

–Ann Bartow

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