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After a mystery outbreak at an elementary school in south central Minnesota sent sent 30 children to hospital last Thursday morning, investigators from the Minnesota Department of Health have failed to isolate any physical cause. In an interview with a Minneapolis television station, deputy state epidemiologist Dr. Richard Danila has suggested that the outbreak may be due to mass psychogenic illness.
The outbreak occurred during a rehearsal of an upcoming musical in the auditorium at Springfield School when students began developing symptoms including nausea and vomitting. No teachers were affected but carbon monoxide poisoning was initially suspected. The students were taken to local hospitals where blood tests ruled out any medical explanation. All students were released that same day with only two requiring oxygen treatment. Follow-up testing of the auditorium showed no sign of carbon monoxide or other chemical agents that could have caused the symptoms.
According to Dr. Danila, many students only became ill after seeing other students developing symptoms. Some students who had not been in the auditorium also became ill after seeing their fellow students becoming sick. "Sometimes all it takes is seeing one child throw up or faint, and then others became to feel similar symptoms," Dr. Danila said. "But the symptoms are normally very subjective -- feelings of nausea, or mild dizziness -- and nothing that can be measured objectively." He also added that the children are not making up their symptoms though the outbreak has all the eamarks of psychogenic illness.
"We're not saying it's in their heads. They really are sick. But there is no organic cause of their illness, there's no toxin cause of their illness. This is what we call a line-of-sight transmission. Seeing others getting sick, combined with the power of suggestion, causes these kids to feel sick." He encourages school administrators to reassure the students that there is no health risk and that their illnesses may have been caused by the stress of rehearsal.
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