Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Israel Exonerated; U.S. Doctors Attribute West Bank Illness to ‘anxiety’

April 27, 1983
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The State Department has released a report in which two U.S. government epidemiologists find that “anxiety” caused the mysterious illness that broke out among more than 600 West Bank high school girls.

“We conclude that this epidemic of acute illness was induced by anxiety,” Drs. Philip Landrigan and Bess Miller of the U.S. Public Health Services’ Center for Disease Control in Atlanta said in their report after studying the illnesses on the West Bank.

“It may have been triggered initially either by psychological factors or by sub-toxic exposure to H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide). Its subsequent spread was mediated by psychogenic factors. Newspaper and radio reports may have contributed to this spread. The epidemic ended after West Bank schools were closed.”

State Department deputy spokesman Alan Ramberg had no comment in releasing the 36-page report and its 12 pages of supplementary material yesterday except to read the conclusions by the two American epidemiologists.


Landrigan and Miller said that the epidemic began March 21 when “approximately 50 cases of acute illness of unknown origin occurred among adolescent girls in a secondary school in the village of Araba, northern West Bank.” They noted that among the characteristics of the illness were headaches, blurred vision, vertigo, nausea, abdominal pain and weakness of the limbs.

By April 3, when the epidemic ended, there were 943 cases in widely separated towns on the West Bank;660 of the cases were among high school girls. The others who were ill were adults and a small number of Israeli soldiers on the West Bank. The two Americans stressed that “no one died” and that none of the illnesses were reported in refugee camps.

Landrigan and Miller began their study on April 2, after Israel had asked the Atlantabased center to evaluate the problem. Also making a study at the same time were Dr. Ian Carter, an epidemiologist, and Dr. Anthony Veterazzi, a toxicologist with the World Health Organization in Geneva, who are making a separate report to the United Nations. The findings by the two American epidemiologists are also being sent to the UN.


The Americans visited the five hospitals where most of the patients were taken and were able to talk to and examine some 20 patients from eight different villages who had been ill from two to 14 days. They talked to hospital physicians and local public health officials and to numerous Israeli and West Bank officials. They studied both blood samples and samples of the air at two schools where outbreaks had occurred.

In interviews at two affected villages, they found that the illness was preceded by an unpleasant odor, most commonly described as rotten eggs. They said they found no common exposure to food, water or agricultural chemicals.

The two American epidemiologists said that in examining the patients in the hospital they found all of them had symptoms that were “manifestations of anxiety” such as dilation of the pupils, cold blue hands and rapid heart rate. They found no evidence of pesticide poisoning, or infectious disease. The laboratory studies bore this out, too.

At the same time, “We encountered no evidence that patients had deliberately or consciously fabricated their symptoms,” Landrigan and Miller stressed.

They also noted that “we observed no evidence which led us to conclude that affected women would either be rendered sterile or left with permanent psychiatric impairment as a result of their illness,”

The two epidemiologists said they spent “a great deal of effort in reassuring village residents and their leaders” about this because “there was widespread concern among Palestinian villagers about these possible consequences, presumably as a result of exaggerated press reports.”

Recommended from JTA