Mysterious Illness Rocks A Community in Upstate New York

A mysterious illness affecting multiple teenage girls at a high school in upstate New York has residents of the small town all aflutter.  In the small town of Le Roy, New York, (population of just under 8,000) at least a dozen teenaged girls, one boy, and one school nurse have begun exhibiting symptoms ranging from subtle twitches to violent jerking of body parts and verbal outbursts.  Since August, researchers and the media alike have taken an interest in what could possibly be the cause of this emerging trend.

Doctors from the Dent Neurological Institute in Amherst, New York, were among the first to look into the issue, ruling that tics and twitches were a result of a conversion disorder.  Conversion disorder, which has in the past been referred to as ‘mass hysteria’ is a “condition in which a person has blindness, paralysis, or other nervous system (neurologic) symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation.”  Prompted by inner conflict, conversion disorder is the physical embodiment of psychological turmoil.  Those who typically are afflicted with conversion disorder typically must look to therapy or other psychological treatments for this disease.

For many who believe that the mystery at Le Roy Junior/Senior High School is a product of a psychosomatic phenomenon, the popularity of social networking sights proves to be the perfect transmitters for the disease.  Sites like Facebook and YouTube are just as popular with teens in Le Roy as they are with teens all around the world.  Dr. David Lichter has tested one of the afflicted girls and believes this to be the case.  As a clinical professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo, he believes that “If you are a person who is vulnerable in some way because of your own stresses and anxieties and particularly if you identify with that individual through some kind of an emotional bond…then I think there is a potential to create a further potential spread.”

For many young people, social media and online identities are just as important as face-to-face interactions.  This idea that ailments have gone viral is not completely unwarranted.  Dr. Lichter and other researchers suggest that perhaps on some unconscious level these symptoms may be implanted into another person and physically mimicked.  “I think you do have the potential for people going online and witnessing other student’s behavior, then I think this medium has the potential to spread it beyond the immediate environment,” states Lichter.  This seems all the more likely since many of the girls have posted videos on YouTube showing the differences in their body movements.

But this answer is not enough for many including the worried parents who are looking for answers or preventative steps in protecting themselves and their families.  At the behest of concerned parents, another opinion was sought—this time from a New Jersey-based specialist in pediatric neurologist.  PANDAS/PANS was then thrown into the mix. An acronym for pediatric acute neuropsychiatric syndrome, PANS draws a line from the “body’s response to certain bacterial infections.”  Perhaps then a bacterial infection, like strep throat, could have been the catalyst for this new disease.

Another possible answer to this mystery revolves around a train wreck that occurred within a couple miles of the high school in 1970, spilling approximately 30,000 gallons of tricholorethene (TCE) into the surrounding soil and water sources.  Believed to have been cleaned up at the time, this alarm has still sparked much concern amongst residents and interested parties across the country, including well-known activist Erin Brokovich. 

While the spill was considered clean, with wells dug to monitor water at the site (by hydraulic cleansing, a controversial method of accessing oils beneath the earth’s surface, no less), additional testing was conducted on the remaining barrels.  Out of the 240 55-gallon barrels, 80 were tested—one contained trace amounts of TCE.  While continued testing of the area will bring more answers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered for all the barrels to, finally, be removed.  But why after all these years would the spill be affecting the community? Why has it primarily targeted teenagers? And girls?

With no certain or concrete evidence behind these claims, it is evident that continued research is necessary.  For the time being, citizens of Le Roy will continue to look after the health of themselves and the town. Meanwhile, the country, and perhaps the rest of the world, will continue to look on.  

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