‘Grisi Siknis’ outbreak grips indigenous towns in Nicaragua

Hans Baldung Grien: Witches.
Hans Baldung Grien: Witches

A team of traditional indigenous healers and regional health authorities from the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) trekked out to visit three rural Miskito communities along the Río Coco on Tuesday to investigate reports of an outbreak of a mysterious collective hysteria, known as “grisi siknis,” or “crazy sickness.”

Centuriano Knight, the regional health coordinator for the RAAN, told The Nica Tim es yesterday in a phone interview that 34 people have reportedly fallen ill with grisi siknis in the river community of Santa Fe, seven people in the nearby community of Esperanza and two in the neighboring community of San Carlos. The outbreak of grisi siknis, which has no scientific explanation, is the largest case of collective hysteria since a massive outbreak in the RAAN community of Raití in 2003.

Though doctors, anthropologists and sociologists have all studied previous cases, no one has been able to explain the phenomena, Knight said. Traditional healers and witches have explained the mysterious illness with different theories ranging from a curse to incomplete witchcraft.

The strange illness apparently affects young people more than old, putting people in a strange trance and apparently giving them super-human strength, according to Knight and other witnesses.” via The Tico Times.

Perhaps because I was a student of cross-cultural studies before I became a psychiatrist, these reports of indigenous illnesses or culture-bound syndromes have always fascinated me. I used to teach a class on them to medical students, which was pure entertainment as far as I was (and, I hope, many of the students were) concerned. Because psychiatric illnesses are as much social constructs as biological realities, a culture-specific syndrome is in a real sense culture-specific. That is why it makes so much more sense that it be dealt with by indigenous practitioners rather than a WHO swat team. Of course, when I moved into psychiatry, I felt I was still utilizing my skills in cross-cultural communication, as every interpersonal interaction is in a sense cross-cultural, if you take my meaning. Thus, every episode of emotional distress is in a sense a culture-bound syndrome, despite what DSM-IV or functional MRI studies might tell you.

2 thoughts on “‘Grisi Siknis’ outbreak grips indigenous towns in Nicaragua

  1. Gabriela 20 Mar 09 / 6.00 pm

    I am from Managua, Nicaragua and have a Misquito backround. I am 30 years old and suffer from seazures since the age of 10. I was diagnosed epilepsy in Miami Baptist Hospital and began to take carbomazepine. I have tried lots of different meds and none has worked for me. The MRI is normal and only an electroencefalogram is able to detect any anormality. My desire is to find a cure for my condition and to have a better cuality of life.


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