Connect
MJA
MJA

“Mystery illness” at Melbourne Airport: toxic poisoning or mass hysteria?

Robert E Bartholomew
Med J Aust 2005; 183 (11): 564-566.

Summary

  • A government report concluded that the cause of the recent cluster of illness affecting 57 people at Melbourne Airport was a “mystery”.

  • On reviewing the evidence, I noted the appearance of a constellation of distinct psychogenic features (in the absence of an identifiable pathogenic agent or source), and non-specific symptoms not correlated with any particular illness, strongly suggesting a diagnosis of mass psychogenic illness.

  • Given the time differential between the illness onset in the index case and the initiation of air sampling, and the added factor of the air-conditioning in the terminal being switched to exhaust mode, the possibility that a toxic agent was responsible for making some of the victims ill cannot be completely excluded.

  • Future investigations of similar incidents should, in the absence of clinical or laboratory findings, consider the diagnosis of mass psychogenic illness. Failure to do so can engender avoidable confusion and unease among the Australian public.

  • The issue of diagnosing collective psychogenic illness will continue to be a major public health challenge, exacerbated by widespread anxieties over the threat of chemical and biological weapons and fears of contamination.

Please login with your free MJA account to view this article in full

  • Robert E Bartholomew

  • Department of Social Sciences, The Batchelor Institute, Parap, NT.

Correspondence: 

Competing interests:

None identified.

  • 1. Esplin B. A report of the response to an emergency at Melbourne Airport on 21 February 2005. Melbourne, Vic: Emergency Services Commissioner, 2005: 24 Mar: 23, 5, 5, 17, 23, 14-15, 30, 2, 23, 2. Available at: http://www.dpc.vic.gov.au/CA256D800027B102/Lookup/Melbourne_Airport_Emergency_Review/$file/Melbourne%20Airport%20Review.pdf (accessed Oct 2005).
  • 2. Bolt A. Hysterical denial. Herald Sun (Melbourne) 2005; 6 Apr: 19.
  • 3. Bartholomew R, Sirois F. Occupational mass psychogenic illness: a transcultural perspective. Transcult Psychiatry 2000; 37: 495-524.
  • 4. McGrath K. Ten News Sydney. 2005; 21 Feb.
  • 5. Hatcher L, McKenzie S. Sky News Australia. 2005; 21 Feb.
  • 6. Smith A, Milovanovic S. Thousands stranded, 47 sick as gas mystery deepens. Sydney Morning Herald 2005; 22 Feb: 3.
  • 7. Virgin makes amends. Sydney Morning Herald 2005; 23 Feb: 2.
  • 8. Hoare D, Creedy S. Mystery gas hits passengers. The Australian 2005; 2 Feb: 1, 4.
  • 9. Silkstone D. Probe over airport gas scare. The Age (Melbourne) 2005: 23 Feb: 1, 6.
  • 10. Bartholomew R, Wessely S. Epidemic hysteria in Virginia: the case of the phantom gasser of 1933-1934. South Med J 1999; 92: 762-769.
  • 11. Bartholomew R, Wessely S. Protean nature of mass sociogenic illness: from possessed nuns to chemical and biological terrorism fears. Br J Psychiatry 2002; 180: 300-306.
  • 12. Wessely S, Hyams K, Bartholomew R. Psychological implications of chemical and biological weapons. BMJ 2001; 323: 878-879.

Author

remove_circle_outline Delete Author
add_circle_outline Add Author

Comment
Do you have any competing interests to declare? *

I/we agree to assign copyright to the Medical Journal of Australia and agree to the Conditions of publication *
I/we agree to the Terms of use of the Medical Journal of Australia *
Email me when people comment on this article

Responses are now closed for this article.