Doctors Baffled by Oregon Hallucination Epidemic

It apparently began in mid-October when a 54-year-old caregiver for an elderly woman made a bizarre call to police in North Bend, Oregon at 3 am.   She informed them that seven or eight people were "trying to take the roof off her vehicle" but police found nothing out of the ordinary when they investigated.   Then police received a similar call from the same women less than two hours later.  Believing the woman was hallucinating, police officers took her to a local hospital where she was assessed and released after doctors concluded that she was healthy.    

Which is when things started getting really strange...

Over the course of the day, virtually everyone who had come into contact with the woman started developing bizarre symptoms, including nausea, lightheadedness, euphoria, and hallucinations.  Along with the two officers who had taken her to hospital, the 78-year-old woman she had been caring for her needed to be hospitalized.   Even one of the  hospital employees who had come into contact with her began reporting flu-like symptoms.  Suspecting some sort of epidemic, a police hazmat team was mobilized to decontaminate the hospital and the home where it all started.  

Despite extensive testing of vehicles, the emergency room where the woman was seen, and blood samples from all affected people, absolutely nothing was found that could account for the mysterious epidemic.   Though a search of the elderly patient's home turned up fentanyl patches containing opioids, their role in the epidemic were later ruled out by investigators.  With no indication of a clear medical cause, some experts are now suggesting that the epidemic may have been psychogenic.

While cases of mass hysteria are fairly common, they usually involve impressionable people being influenced to believe they have been exposed to some environmental factor that causes their symptoms.   Most often seen in adolescents and young adults, the police officers and medical professionals involved in this latest epidemic certainly don't  fit the usual pattern.    Still, as Professor James Giordano, Ph.D. at Georgetown University Medical Center's Department of Neurology and Biochemistry points out, stress can have a bizarre effect on even the most hardheaded professionals.  

In an interview with Popular Science, he remains open to the idea that a contaminant may have been present that altered the brain chemistry of all those affected.   Even with a common contaminant, it seems likely that the symptoms they developed may have been influenced by what other affected people were describing.  "If the situation is stressful enough, that it’ll really sort of play on somebody’s mind strings. Here’s an individual who’s having vivid hallucinations," he says. "If they’re describing the hallucinations, particularly if they’re being very vocal about it... The idea that they may be having simultaneous experiences can happen." 

With no new cases, the epidemic seems to be over.  Whether due to a mysterious environmental agent or psychogenic factors, all people affected have been given a clean bill of health.  Exactly why it happened will likely remain a mystery.  

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