The Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic of 1962

What if laughter, instead of being the best medicine, became a disease?

In early 1962, three girls at a German mission school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) began laughing uncontrollably during a morning class. The teacher panicked and rang the bell, summoning all the students to a small field outside the class. Her idea was to calm the three students down, but it did something else. When other students looked at the laughing girls, they too broke into uncontrollable laughter. What might have started as a joke was just about to break into a bizarre full-blown epidemic.

The school in Kashasha village of Bukoba had 195 students in January of 1962. From the three girls who broke into uncontrollable laughter, 92 more would be affected by the time the school closed on March 18, 1962. The school was re-opened again on May 21 only to be closed again at the end of June after 57 students were affected. Closing the school in March turned out to be a bad idea. Laughter, which is in some sense contagious, suddenly became a real medical problem no one understood. By the end of March, the village of Nshamba had about 217 more people infected with the disease. This soon spread across several more villages, forcing public health officials to quarantine villages that had not yet been affected. About 1000 people were reported to have been effected by the time the last person laughed sometime between the end of 1963 and June 1964. If indeed this happened in June 1964, the disease would have affected people for more than two years. 10 schools were closed during that time, and most of the affected students took some time to regain normalcy.

The best record of this bizarre event is a paper by Rankin and Philip titled An epidemic of laughing in the Bukoba District of Tanganyika. Published in May 1963 in the Central African Journal of Medicine, the account details what the two local health officers witnessed during the yearlong epidemic. It maps a rather interesting search for answers about how laughter, normally a sign of happiness, became a dreaded disease among the people of Bukoba.

The title of the paper may be misleading. The patients did not just laugh uncontrollably. They also cried and showed signs of hysteria, with short bouts of laughing and crying followed by periods of calm and then a recurrence. There were rashes in some instances but no fever or other physical symptom. Some patients said they saw things moving around their heads, and also showed signs of paranoia. They also got violent when they were restrained. These symptoms lasted from just a few hours up to 16 whole days. During the attacks, patients were incapacitated by laughter, unable to do anything else but laugh or cry. Some fainted as a result of exhaustion.

There were no patterns of location, friendship or proximity in the first group of patients. There was no virus, bacterial or unknown chemical in the environment, the water supply or the food supply. There was somewhat of a pattern, though. The disease seemed to affect adolescent girls who then spread it to the female members of their families. Adult men showed some form of immunity, but young boys were at times affected. It also seemed to affect only the lower echelons of society, and no one of note, including those working in jobs such as teaching, police work or medicine was ever affected.

There are some neurological conditions such as the Pseudobulbar Effect whose symptoms match those of the 1962 event but such conditions are not contagious.With nothing else to work with, the researchers turned to investigating the possibility of previous occurrences. There was evidence of none, at least not in folklore or language. There were few patterns to work with, the only other known event being a similar outbreak in a school in Mbarara, Uganda, in February 1962. The villagers had their own theories, most of them revolving around witchcraft, poisoned maize flour, and effects of the atomic bombs dropped in Japan at the end of World War II.

So the researchers turned to the only thing that made sense,?mass hysteria. Europeans were already familiar with epidemics of mass hysteria. After the Black Death had decimated Europes population, a rather scary epidemic erupted in Germany and Italy. The first one occurred in 1374 in Aachen, Germany, and spread across Europe. One of the worst ones, known as the Dancing Plague of 1518, involved 400 people dancing for days without resting. Many of them collapsed from exhaustion and an unknown number died from stroke, heart attack, and extreme exhaustion. Another event occurred in Kentucky, USA, around 1800 when people showed signs of mass hysteria including dance-like movements and barking like dogs. One of the notable ones to occur after the Bukoba one was the 1983 West Bank fainting epidemic which lasted for about two weeks. The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic remains the only one of its kind on record.

According to researchers such as Christian Hempelmann, the reason for such events is that there is an underlying shared stress factor within any population. It is especially higher in people of low status, both real or perceived. Now known as Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI), this form of mass hysteria becomes a psychological last resort by such people to express stress. This would explain why the laughing epidemic seemed to only affect younger individuals and mostly women and girls.

The country had just been granted independence by the British, and expectations were higher than ever for school-going children. It is likely that the rigid structures of the mission school, coupled with the rising stress factor in the population, caused the bouts of laughter. From what may perhaps have been a simple joke between adolescents emerged a bizarre epidemic we may never fully understand. Although an epidemic of the Bukoba-scale has never been seen since, a YouTube search of ‘uncontrollable laughter’ yields 12, 800 matches, some of them involving news casters who broke into laughter in the middle of a bulletin.

Owaahh, 2015.

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till Another is told.