How three girls started an epidemic that swept the nation

Elementary students carrying their backpacks

A group of school children triggered an ‘epidemic’ in the 1960s (Picture: Getty)

After Covid, we’re all familiar with the concept of ‘patient zero’, the unlucky person who is the first discovered to have a new disease.

But at the start of an epidemic in Tanganyika, now Tanzania, there were three patient zeroes.

Three girls, all students at a boarding school in the village of Kashasha.

It wasn’t a disease they spread however, but laughter. That may sound funny, but as it made its way first around the school, then across the country, it quickly became no laughing matter.

On January 31, 1962, a group of students dissolved into a fit of giggles. Not unusual really, and always nice to see. However, once they started, they couldn’t stop – a Pringles tube of glee. They weren’t laughing for just a few minutes, as most of us have surely done, but for days, then weeks.

Not entirely non-stop, which would have been physically impossible, but on and off, overcome with long bouts of debilitating laughter.

Laughing can be contagious (Picture: Getty)

That would have been disruptive enough, but it got worse as the laughter spread to other students at the mission-run school. Eventually, 95 of the 159 pupils, aged between 12 and 18, were ‘infected’.

After six weeks, it was more than the staff could handle, and eventually they were forced to close the school. Parents were summoned to come and collect their giggling girls – and promptly started laughing themselves.

While the teachers had appeared immune, clearly their families weren’t, and as the students went their separate ways and spread out across the region, so did their laughter.

Reports vary as to how many people were affected, from hundreds to thousands, but there is no doubt the contagious hilarity spread. How long it lasted is also up for debate, ranging from six to 18 months.

We laugh for many reasons (Picture: Getty)

But the laughter was very real – and in some cases, very serious.

While no one died, laughing continuously for more than about 20 seconds can have serious side effects, including fainting and respiratory problems, due to disrupted breathing, rashes, and, erm, flatulence.

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Victims were also often left crying or screaming, unable to stop laughing but not finding it funny at all.

Thankfully, the epidemic eventually fizzled out. Fewer and fewer people suffered laughing fits, which became shorter and less frequent, until finally, the laughter stopped.

To this day, no one can be absolutely sure of the cause, but there is one leading theory as to why it started.

People laugh for many reasons, all studied by the wonderfully-named field of gelotology.

Laughing is good for us (Picture: Getty)

Often it is exactly why you might think – because something is funny, has tickled someone. It might be a joke, a video on Instagram or …read more

Source:: Metro


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