San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Outbreak of mysterious ‘grisi siknis' illness grips indigenous towns in Nicaragua

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.

“A 15-year-old girl with siknis can overpower six or seven men,” Knight said. “The men can´t detain her, and have to tie her up in bed sheets.”

Knight said the illness doesn´t necessarily make people violent, but it does make them hysterical. Many of the affected will take off running madly, and other villagers can´t stop them, he said.

Sometimes, however, grisi siknis can turn violent. In the case of Raití in 2003, some of the affected people ran around town with machetes trying to cut others.

Knight said the mysterious illness has existed in the indigenous communities since the 1960s, but had disappeared for years until the 2003 outbreak. The illness apparently only affects indigenous Miskito and Mayagna populations.

In 2004, the illness was cured by a local healer who treated it with herbs and other natural medicines. The three local healers sent to the communities Tuesday will employ the same techniques, Knight said.

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