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Predictors of mass psychogenic illness in a junior secondary school in rural Botswana: A case control study

Keatlaretse Siamisang
Thabo Phologolo
Terrence Mukuhwa
Nathaniel Schafrick
Bonolo Mhaladi
Boang Phuthego
Monica Mmati
Tiny Masupe


Background: In March 2019, students at Lempu Secondary School in Kweneng District, Botswana displayed symptoms including headache, abnormal leg movements and difficulty walking. Within days, 133 students were admitted to Scottish Livingstone Hospital where mass psychogenic illness (MPI) was diagnosed.
Aim: To identify predictors of this illness.
Setting: Kweneng West District, Botswana.
Methods: This was a case control study using interviewer-administered questionnaires. Cases were students who displayed MPI symptoms from the 2nd of March to the time of the interviews or who were admitted with MPI diagnosis. Analysis was restricted to female students. Logistic regression was used to generate odds ratios. A p value of < 0.05 was considered to demonstrate significant association between variables.
Results: Interviews were conducted with 142 cases and 202 controls. The median age was 15 years. Most of the cases (95.8%) were boarding girls. Residence in school campus (AOR 13.2), history of evaluation by psychologist and/or social worker (AOR 2.6), history of traumatic events (AOR 1.8), contact with sick peers (AOR 2.3) and contact with spiritual healer (AOR 2.0) were independent predictors of MPI. Additionally, perception of adequate security in the dormitories (AOR 0.3) and perception of poor lighting (AOR 6.8) were significant predictors of MPI amongst boarding girls.
Conclusion: The outbreak in Lempu Community Junior Secondary School (CJSS) was typical of mass psychogenic illness affecting mainly boarding girls and was associated with psychological and environmental risk factors. Changing the boarding environment and continuous psychological support are key to preventing future outbreaks. Interventions should also target the identified risk factors.

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eISSN: 2078-6786
print ISSN: 1608-9685