Afghan gas attacks weren’t hysteria after all

From the New York Times:

Blood tests have confirmed that a mysterious series of cases of mass sickness at girls’ schools across the country over the last two years were caused by a powerful poison gas, an Afghan official said Tuesday.

… The spokesman, Dr. Kargar Norughli, said his ministry and the World Health Organization had been testing the blood of victims in 10 mass sickenings and had confirmed the presence of toxic but not fatal levels of organophosphates. Those compounds are widely used in insecticides and herbicides, and are also the active ingredients of compounds developed as chemical weapons, including sarin and VX gas.

Dr. Norughli did not explain why the confirmations had not been announced earlier.

But he emphasized that how the gas was delivered — and even whether the poisonings were deliberate — remained a mystery. There have been no fatalities, and no one has claimed responsibility for the episodes.

Many local officials had dismissed the cases as episodes of mass hysteria provoked by acid and arson attacks on schoolgirls by Taliban fighters and others who objected to their education. But the cases have been reported only in girls’ schools, or in mixed schools during hours set aside only for girls.

Organophosphates are also a common ingredients in sheep dips, and contact with sheep dips has been linked to poisonings of farmers and farm workers in western countries, with long-term debilitating neurological effects including depression and pain. The practice of putting such incidents down to “hysteria” will be familiar to anyone who has studied the history of chronic neurological illness in the West: Gulf War Syndrome and M.E. have both been the subject of such claims and even when outbreaks of M.E. have occurred, there have been those who have tried to put them down to “mass hysteria” as with these poisonings. Even multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, before scientists worked out what was actually wrong with the patients, were put down to hysteria and some victims spent years in psychiatric hospitals because doctors were convinced that their symptoms were signs of mental illness — until the MRI scanners which were invented in the mid-1980s proved that wrong.

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