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More than 50 schoolgirls were taken to hospital after they succumbed to what education chiefs in Senegal are calling “collective hysteria” – fainting and screaming.
The girls’ bizarre behaviour caused firefighters to shut down the secondary school where the incident occurred yesterday.
All of the 53 girls, as well as two boys, who experienced the unexplained fit were evacuated to the capital’s main hospital.
“The phenomenon started in one of the classrooms of the 5th standard girls,” said Adina Aidara, the principal of the Lamine Gueye Secondary School in Dakar where the strange event occurred.
“Three students, all girls, fell down. The same phenomenon was repeated 30 minutes later during recess – this time involving high schoolers. We called the fire department to evacuate the victims.”
The incident began at 9am. By 1pm, the school had sent 55 students to the hospital in ambulances, all but two of whom were girls, he said.
“It’s an event that is completely out of the ordinary,” said Mr Aidara.
Colonel Diene Faye of the local fire brigade said the scale of the phenomenon prompted officials to close down and isolate the high school.
At the city’s central hospital, anguished parents fussed over their daughters. Several allowed their girls to be interviewed only on condition that their name not be published.
A 15-year-old girl in the hospital ward, who spoke with her mother that her side, said that she was in the middle of chatting with a friend. “Suddenly I had a horrible headache. It hurt so much that I started screaming. And then I fainted. From that moment on, I no longer knew where I was,” she said.
Another teenage girl, also interviewed alongside her family, said: “I don’t know what happened. I suddenly felt like my forehead was sweating. I felt my body vibrating. I cried out loudly. It was as if there was a power greater than myself that was inside my body. I don’t know what happened after that.”
Senegal’s minister of education Moustapha Sourang visited the school yesterday and ordered that classes be suspended for 48 hours while the ministry investigated.
Immediately after the incident, Dakar was abuzz with rumours of evil spirits and of supernatural retaliation. Some say the girls were being punished for having dressed immodestly.
But Dr Ababacar Wilane, chief of psychiatry at the hospital, tried to put the stories of demons and spells to rest, saying: “The most vulnerable among them were probably caught up in the moment and succumbed to a kind of domino effect,” when they saw the others fainting and screaming.
It is not the first incidence of mass hysteria in Senegal.
On Monday, a local newspaper reported that in the town of Podor in northern Senegal, 16 girls had fainted simultaneously.
“Sixteen girls fell into a collective hysteria. Some people believe they were possessed by an invisible force. The victims screamed and rolled on the ground,” wrote the daily newspaper, ‘Le Matin’.