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June 26, 2013

Health officials investigate unexplained hiccups in high schoolers

Mass. conducted air-quality tests, contacted physicians

(Continued)

DANVERS, Mass. —

“To date, MDPH has received signed medical records forms for nine students who have been reported as having these symptoms,” according to the May 10 status report.

The state has also conducted a number of indoor air quality tests and made visual observations in school buildings. 

“Based on the observation and air measurements taken during the building investigations conducted at Essex Agricultural and Technical High School to date, no environmental factors that would be most likely attributed to significant neurological effects have been detected,” the update states.

The state is also looking into environmental information for the East Street field in Middleton “where parents who attended the February meeting reported that many of the students experiencing vocal tics and chronic hiccups have played sports.”

In January, some health experts who had not seen any of the local students theorized the incidents appeared to be a case of conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness, also known as mass hysteria. That was the explanation given for a widely publicized case involving high school girls suffering tics in Le Roy, N.Y. It’s a diagnosis that came under intense scrutiny.

Parents from around the country supported the theory that pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections, or PANDAS, may be to blame. This condition involves rare cases when strep infections cause autoimmune reactions in the brain.

The Essex Aggie case has caught the attention of New Zealand author Robert Bartholomew, a native New Yorker who has a doctorate in medical sociology and who teaches at the Botany Downs Secondary College in South Auckland. The researcher has written extensively on the subject of mass hysteria in schools.

“This is a highly unusual case. After all, it’s not every day that more than a dozen high school students come down with vocal tics and hiccuping,” he said in an email. “It would be almost impossible to fake the symptoms ... being described,” said Bartholomew.

He has been trying, with no luck, to get answers from the state Department of Public Health to learn from these incidents so they could be prevented from recurring.

“Transparency is the best policy in these cases,” Bartholomew said.

This story was provided by The Salem News in Salem, Mass.

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