Sat, Apr 07, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Mexican school's mysterious illness is psychosomatic


Government health officials who examined about 600 female students suffering from symptoms that sparked fears of an epidemic at a Roman Catholic boarding school said the mystery illness was psychosomatic.

Media coverage showing girls unable to walk out of the La Villa de las Ninas school in the state of Mexico, prompted allegations of abuse by the South Korean nuns who run the school and treated the girls with traditional Asian medicine.

The school's headmistress, Mother Superior Margie Cheong, told a news conference on Thursday that the first case emerged in October. By March, she said, about 600 girls suffered similar symptoms, including headaches and weak knees, prompting her to call health officials.

State and federal health and environmental officials examined the students and conducted studies on the soil, water and garbage at the school, but found nothing, Cheong said.

She said once the school told students in late March about the findings, 80 percent immediately recovered. About 130 of the students are still experiencing symptoms, she said.

Victor Manuel Torres, assistant director of epidemiology at the Mexico State Health Institute, said that the teenage girls appear to have suffered from "psychosomatic symptoms."

The cause "probably comes from being in a state of isolation," he said.

The school houses more than 3,000 girls who are only allowed to see their families three times a year. The institution's several buildings sit on a sprawling complex of manicured lawns, running tracks and soccer fields outside Mexico City. The school offers free education for low-income families across Mexico and has been in operation for 17 years.

The government plans to send in psychologists to speak to the student body on Monday, Cheong said.

Orfanelia Torres, 15, a student who sat on a plastic chair just inside the entrance of the complex, said she has been feeling sick for about two weeks.

"I need them to help cure me," she said as her mother, Florinda Hernandez, cried, placing her hand on her shoulder. "I don't believe it's psychological. When they said that to us, we all felt bad."

Some of the students also complained about the nuns treating them with Asian methods. Cheong said the nuns treated a very small number of girls with an herb called Suk, which they heated with a flame. They then applied the smoking herb to the skin to help their circulation.

Cheong said she now realizes "that was a mistake."

"This is a different culture," she said. "It was never meant to hurt them."

She said she also regrets not immediately informing parents.

"I couldn't advise them," she said. "This was too big, and I couldn't tell them what they had because there was no diagnosis."

She allowed dozens of angry parents and relatives into the school on Thursday.

Maria del Rosario Torres, a 33-year-old single mother, said she and other parents want more tests to be done.

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