KABUL: Sixteen people have been arrested over the alleged serial poisoning of schoolgirls in Afghanistan, although some doctors now suspect psychological stress could be behind the “attacks”, officials said Tuesday.
The sweeping arrests come as desperate authorities try to put an end to the mysterious illnesses – usually mass fainting episodes – that have struck scores of schoolgirls in northern Takhar province almost daily for the past two weeks.
Among those held are a Pakistani woman working in a clinic and a Taliban insurgent leader, provincial spokesman Mostafa Rasuli told AFP. All have denied any involvement, and no proof of poisoning has been found, he said.
As AFP reported last week, an expert in the field is convinced that the incidents are classic examples of mass psychogenic illness, or mass hysteria, rather than poisoning.
Some doctors in the area now share this belief, an education ministry spokesman, Abdul Saboor Ghufrani, said Tuesday – a day when 60 schoolgirls in two separate schools were affected.
“There have been a number of suspected poisoning cases of schoolgirls in Takhar province recently, but initial investigation by health and security teams in the area have failed to detect traces of any poison,” Ghufrani told AFP.
“In some cases doctors in the area have reported they suspect a psychological cause behind these incidents, but we cannot yet definitely rule out the possibility of deliberate attempt by some group to sicken our students.
“Some suspects have been detained in recent days and police are interrogating them. We have to wait for the outcome of the investigation.”
Local officials regularly accuse Taliban insurgents, who banned schooling for girls while in power from 1996 to 2001, of poisoning school wells or using “gas” or “toxic powder” against the girls.
But with no physical cause established, Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist and author specialising in the field, told AFP the poisoning scares had “all the earmarks of mass psychogenic illness, also known as mass hysteria”.
He noted there was a history of similar cases in combat zones, listing examples from the Palestinian territories in 1983 to Soviet Georgia in 1989 and Kosovo in 1990.