oa South African Family Practice - Mass hysteria among South African primary school learners in Kwa-Dukuza, KwaZulu-Natal : case study



During August 2002, at a primary school in Kwa-Dukuza, KwaZulu-Natal, 27 children who had been well when they left their homes collapsed at school, displaying tremors and shivers throughout their bodies. Many of the children also presented with abdominal cramps and nausea. Almost all the children experienced a feeling of tightness in their chests as well as hyperventilation, which was then followed by fainting. This hysteria spread by line of sight (that is, other children seeing this also collapsed). Mass hysteria had presented similarly, with only a mild variation in the hallucinations, in secondary schools in Mangaung, Bloemfontein, during 2000 and in Gauteng during 2009. Radio stations, such as Radio 702, presented these incidents for discussion and for concerned parents' questions to be answered. In all three episodes, the majority of the affected children were girls. Witchcraft, poisoning, insect bites - in the case of Mangaung - and gas leaks were proposed as causes of this strange behaviour by the previously well children. Experts who investigated these possibilities, however, excluded any identifiable cause. Nearly all the children were well again the next day. The assessment after the incidents was an outbreak of mass hysteria. The parents and the lay media, however, refused to accept this diagnosis, which added to the stress and the anxiety that the children faced when they returned to school.

Mass hysteria can be taxomised into two broad categories: the explosive type, which typically appears in small, institutionalised social networks; and the large, diffused type, during which false rumours and beliefs overwhelm a community. This discussion focuses on the second category - that which affects people in one institution.
The discussion includes the rare outbreak in Kwa-Dukuza, together with the common presentations and symptoms of mass hysteria. Also discussed are the consequences of not managing this condition well immediately on presentation. These consequences entail a perpetuation of the condition, spreading to a greater number of children, to the parents and to the teachers. This may then lead to a disruption in learning at the schools affected and, possibly, later on, to anxiety disorders.


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