Monday, April 20, 2009

Contagious Culture-Bound Syndromes? The Story of Grisi siknis.

It was with great interest that I read on the BBC the article 'She ran around like a maniac' (BBC Website 20th April 2009).

The descriptions of the disease are something every atheist skeptic scoffs at:

"Grisi Siknis turns people into witches and they go crazy," she said.

Last year there were 65 cases of Grisi Siknis, which translates from the local Miskito language as 'crazy sickness'.


It behaves like a virus, sending teenager after teenager into a frenzied state followed by long periods of coma-like unconsciousness.

and the most effective cure is ...

While Western doctors are at a loss as to how to treat this mysterious illness, Doña Porcela says she can cure people with her concoction.

"It can be drunk or bathed in," she said. "Within three or four days, they are normal again."

Using her herbs and candles, she performs a cleansing ceremony on sufferers and, often, on their houses too - akin to an exorcism.

Strangely enough, this disease along with a good number of others, appear to actually be taken seriously by "western" scientific medicine. Wikipedia has an article on it with a number of citations from what seems to be reputable scientific journals (it is noted that Medical Anthropology appears to be considered somewhat controversial).

I guess without digging a whole lot deeper into the field, it is hard to understand the justifications for treating this as a serious medical condition. My guess is that it appears to be strangely contagious, affects random people (among teenage girls of the Miskito people), lasts a long time (months to a year) and records people as having complete amnesia of the events after they had recovered. In spite of the somewhat strange efficacy of traditional herbal solutions to the problem (excaberated by the witchdoctors' refusal to share the information with scientists), the list of symptoms does appear to preclude any shenanigans on the part of the victims.

I wonder if they will allow (or have allowed) victims to be analyzed through an MRI machine (while strapped down) in the middle of an attack. I'm not sure if that is safe though, considering the stories of how violently they struggle. Am almost certain that if something is wrong, an MRI would show it up on the brain scans. Apparently doctors cannot detect anything strange in the blood samples of victims suffering from the disease (while not violent, I presume).

Definitely a curious case.

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