Twenty years after the fainting epidemic in Blackburn, a similar outbreak of mystery illness struck the West Bank, an area familiar to most as a site of tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The illness began at 8:00am on March 21, 1983, in the city of Arrabah. A 17 year old secondary school student complained about throat irritation and difficulty breathing when she walked into the classroom. The list of symptoms soon expanded to a headache, dizziness, and stomach pains. School officials allowed her to go home.
But in the two hours after she left, six more students developed a similar set of symptoms. Two of them reported smelling an odor like rotten eggs. This led school officials to contact local public health authorities, who arrived by 10:00am. Suspecting a gas leak or the possibility of a poison gas attack, they immediately tested the air for toxins. They found nothing that could explain the symptoms, but as a precaution they closed the school anyway. For the next three days, locals around the area of the school reported headaches and fainting spells.
The next wave of illness began March 26 and lasted until March 28. It occurred in and around Jenin, which is located in the northern West Bank. It began when locals watched a car drive slowly up the streets, belching out clouds of thick black smoke. The symptoms were identical to the outbreak at Arrabah: headaches, stomach aches, and fainting. Most of those who fell ill were school girls, but all ages and sexes were effected. It is interesting to note that four of the victims were Israeli Self Defense Force soldiers.
The third and final wave of the outbreak struck on April 3 in Hebron, located in the southern sector of the West Bank. After this outbreak, all schools in the West Bank were closed. No more cases were reported afterwards.
A War of Words
Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to the news knows that Israel and Palestine are not the best of friends. The conflict between the two nations has raged since the state of Israel was re-established by the UN in 1946. To oversimplify the matter, both sides claimed the land we now call Israel, and the Palestinians who lived there when Israel was established weren’t too happy with the newcomers taking over what they saw as their land. Of course, the Israelis also saw the area as their ancestral homeland.
This has led to a conflict that has raged for decades, characterized by seething hatred, violent clashes, and atrocities committed by both sides. Again, this is a vast oversimplification of the history of a troubled land, but for our purposes it will do. The outbreaks occurred against this backdrop of hatred and animosity, where citizens and soldiers on both sides lived in constant fear for their lives.
The hysteria itself became a part of the war of words between the two sides, as each believed the other was responsible. Palestinian leaders accused the Israelis of using chemical weapons against Arab school girls. In a bizarre leap in logic, they claimed that the alleged attacks were meant to sterilize the adolescents.
Not to be beaten to the punch, some politicians on the Israeli side accused Palestinian extremists of something even more bizarre: launching poison attacks against their own people in order to stir up dissent. Somehow, this was supposed to encourage Palestinians to take to the streets and launch demonstrations against the United States and, for some reason, the Red Cross.
More reasonable officials on the Israeli side – public health officials actually investigating the case – pointed to mass hysteria.
As with the fainting epidemic in Blackburn, officials in Israel could find no physiological cause for the illness. Toxicological and environmental testing showed no results: no toxins, poisons, or any other substance that could cause the reported symptoms. The transitory symptoms, the age groups involved, and the fact that most victims were female all pointed to mass hysteria.
However, the outbreak in the West Bank differs a bit from the fainting in Blackburn because it might well have been caused initially by environmental factors. Remember how two students at Arrabah reported smelling rotten eggs? The stench was traced back to a latrine on the school grounds that was leaking gas; specifically, hydrogen sulfide. The gas can be lethal in high concentrations, but luckily the amounts present at the school that day were not enough to be toxic.
This no doubt pungent odor was the spark that lit the tinder box of hysteria. The girls were living in an environment characterized by political tension and a realistic fear that they might be die a violent death. Less an existential threat, but still a big cause of stress among school age children, was the fact that the schools were preparing for exams around the time the outbreak began.
The outbreak spread to Jenin and Hebron and their surrounding districts by breathless media reports of poisonings in secondary schools. No doubt they also reported on the remarks made by leaders on both sides accusing each other of heinous deeds. In a climate of fear like that, any odd site or smell– a slow moving car with exhaust problems, for example– could trigger an outbreak.
“Epidemic of Acute Illness – West Bank.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The Centers for Disease Control. April 29, 1983, 32(16); 205-208 <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000068.htm>
Shipler, David K. “More School Girls in West Bank Fall Sick.” The New York Times. April 4, 1983 <http://www.nytimes.com/1983/04/04/world/more-schoolgirls-in-west-bank-fall-sick.html>
Murphy, Dan. “Mass Hysteria Blamed for Afghan School Girl ‘Poisoning’, Not the Taliban.” CSMonitor.com. July 9, 2012. The Christian Science Monitor. March 7, 2014. <http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Security-Watch/Backchannels/2012/0709/Mass-hysteria-blamed-for-Afghan-schoolgirl-poisoning-not-the-Taliban>
Rubin, Trudy. “Poison Controversy is Latest Symptom of Distrust on the West Bank.” CSMonitor.com. April 5, 1983. The Christian Science Monitor. March 7, 2014. <http://www.csmonitor.com/1983/0405/040561.html>