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Less than two weeks after more than four hundred garment workers fell ill after drinking water suspected of being contaminated, doctors at Bangladesh's Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research have blamed the outbreak on "mass psychogenic illness." In a report released by the Institute, Bangladesh's garment industry has been in a state of crisis following the April collapse of a garment factory causing more than 1,000 deaths. Since Bangladesh's garment industry accounts of eighty percent of that country's $20 billion dollar export revenue, rumours of unsafe working conditions at other garment factories have run rampant contributing to labour unrest and episodes of panic among workers.
For Bangladesh's garment workers, eighty percent of whom are women, concerns about poor work conditions are commonplace including allegations of unsafe drinking water and structual instability in factories. In the recent incident at the Starlight Sweaters Ltd. factory near Dhaka, hundreds of workers developed medical symptoms, including vomiting, leading to factory authorities closing the factory over concerns about water quality. After tests of the water showed only the usual level of contaminants, the Institute's director Dr. Mahmudar Rahman attributed the epidemic to panic although concerns about the water quality were also raised.
According to Dr. Rahman and Mushrefa Mishu, president of Bangladesh's Garment Workers Equity Forum, fear among garment workers is at an all-time high due to the April disaster and the recent outbreak of psychogenic illness is the result of that fear. "Such illness is symptomatic mostly among teenage women," Dr. Rahman added, with similar incidents breaking out across Bangladesh, especially during the summer months when dehydration and stomach problems resulting from extreme heat can reinforce rumours that lead to outbreaks. Although episodes have occurred in other settings, including schools, garment factories are particularly vulnerable due to working conditions. Though many workers have been hospitalized over health concerns, there have been no fatalities to date and workers are often released after only a few hours
While outbreaks are often blamed on mass hysteria, labour activists such as Ms. Mishu are stressing that factories are downplaying the very poor working conditions that can lead to health problems in workers. This includes long work hours, substandard conditions, and even unsafe water. Given the lax labour laws in Bangladesh, factory owners are often free to ignore health problems until a major incident such as the April factory collapse forces review of work conditions. In most factories, workers drink from jars containing unpurified water delivered through aging pipes which are rarely inspected. Although the government of Bangladesh is currently working on a health program to contain the outbreaks, there is little optimism that meaningful change will happen.
Episodes of mass hysteria are not limited to Bangladesh. As many as ninety-seven schoolgirls at a school in northern Afghanistan fell sick after reporting the smell of gas leading them to fear a Taliban attack. A similar incident was reported at a school in the nearby Takhar province just two months earlier. While claims of mass poisonings of Afghan schoolgirls have become common over the past few years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has since concluded that the incidents were the result of "mass psychogenic illness." According to a recent WHO report, more than 1600 students from 22 schools have been treated with no actual deaths involved.
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