Psychogenic illness hits garment workers

Nurul Islam
Published : 1 July 2013, 09:31 AM
Updated : 1 July 2013, 10:06 AM

Bangladesh’s garment workers have fallen ill en masse in recent weeks due to a type of ‘mass psychogenic illness, not due to water or food contamination’, government’s disease monitoring arm says.

The Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) termed it a ‘temporary’ mental problem that responds to simple treatment.

“Counselling (in factories) and friendly atmosphere around them can prevent new outbreaks,” said the Director of the institute, which has been studying such illness since its first outbreak in a school in 2006.

“This year, we found it in garment factories for the first time,” Prof Mahmudur Rahman told He said the workers might be ‘mentally down’ after the devastating Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,100 people, mostly garment workers.

He said this illness could be triggered by mental distress.

The Director advised the garment factory managements “not to overreact” and urged TV channels careful before doing live coverage, as “listening and watching” could spread the disease.

Readymade clothes are Bangladesh’s main export item.

The Director based his observations on the institute’s probe findings following such outbreaks.

Investigations into the latest outbreak in Savar on Monday where about 80 workers fell ill due to what police believed to be food contamination were on.

The first outbreak was reported early last month at a Gazipur factory where over 500 workers fell ill, an affliction that garment factory officials and the police attributed to contaminated water.

The affected workers were rushed to hospital but joined work the next day.

Prof Rahman said water sample tests had not revealed any unusual contaminants.

He said the illness has spread because of ‘a triggering factor’.

“It was a scorching summer day. One or two first fell ill may be due to dehydration and then other followed,” he said.

He said investigators had also found ‘overreaction’ on the part of the management. “They used loud speakers to tell garment workers not to drink water, which, they believed, had become poisonous. Then, many workers began to feel unwell too,” he said.

A week later, another factory reported a similar outbreak, only to be followed by another at Narayanganj, where workers fell ill apparently after taking tiffin.

The Director said they first found this ‘mass psychogenic illness’ in 2006 in a Munshiganj school.

The following year it struck more schools across Bangladesh.

“Our studies found almost 99 percent of those who suffer are girls in their teens,” he said. “There is no relation to wealth”.

“They may be physically or mentally weak and may suffer from any distress,” he said and that this type of illness is ‘not uncommon’ in the world.

Headache, vomiting, dizziness, restlessness, body ache, rapid breathing and sometimes convulsion are some of the symptoms of this psychological illness, IEDCR says.

Its Principal Scientific Officer Dr M Mushtuq Husain, who is leading the Savar investigation, told that their initial findings indicated mass psychogenic illness.