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Posted on 17 February 2011

Host of bizarre diseases strike urban Indians

Like Vampire Disease Syndrome, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome and Art Attack

Yasodhara Rakshit
New Delhi

If offered a wish list, many Indians would probably choose good health at the top. It is an issue across the country with many families taking regular doses of medicines. Now, however, a host of new concerns are emerging that are affecting mostly urban India.

These are not the usual afflictions. They are, actually, a host of bizarre diseases and syndromes that would be perfectly natural in science fiction. Except that they are real and are troubling real people.

Tehelka has taken all possible care to get doctors’ versions of each of these diseases. This is not the entire list of strange diseases in India, but is a compilation of 10 bizarre ailments. We have also taken care to protect the identities of patients where they did not want to be named.

So here goes.

For 15-year-old Ashima Sharma, life was a song. Pretty, talented, lively, good grades at school, and a liking for burgers and fries. In her Bengaluru home, things were under control. Or so it seemed until a month or so ago.

In the space of a few weeks, Ashima’s life became unrecognisable. For no apparent reason, Ashima began to lose weight alarmingly. In about five weeks, she lost 10 kilos.

Her shocked parents watched what they thought was a form of paranoia. Ashima had apparently, out of nowhere, developed deep fear of blood. She began to say she ‘does not have blood’, said her doctor. Her astonished parents took Ashima to Manasa Neuro Hospital in Bengaluru, where she was diagnosed with ‘The Walking Dead Syndrome’.

The syndrome is not associated with devotion to the American television series The Walking Dead, a zombie fest loved by fans of horror shows. It is a condition in which ‘a person holds a delusional belief that he or she is dead and thus has lost their blood or internal organs,’ according to Ashima’s psychiatrist, who did not want to be named.

According to him, The Walking Dead Syndrome can include delusions of immortality.

This is a list of bizarre diseases striking Indians, in no particular order.

Illustrations by Anand Naorem

1. Foreign Accent Syndrome

There are about 50 recorded cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome, in which people who have suffered strokes or other injuries adopt a new accent, according to doctors from the psychiatric wing of Mumbai’s Apollo Hospital.

For instance, Nalanda Bhanwari, a teacher in Jaipur. She suffered a fall and then began speaking with an English accent. She even adopted such Anglicisms as ‘bloody’ and ‘upon my word’. Bhanwari has never stepped outside India and does not prescribe to either English cinema or television shows.

Perhaps the oddest case of the Foreign Accent Syndrome concerned a Norwegian woman who had fallen into a coma after being hit by shrapnel during an air raid in 1941. When she woke up, she spoke with a thick German accent. Her Jewish neighbours then attacked her.

2. Vampire Disease Syndrome

This is not about feeding on human blood or roaming lonely halls wearing a cloak.

Dr. Rudranil Banerjee, a doctor with the Indian Army, posted at Delhi Cantonment, says he has come across at least 20 such cases when he was a private practitioner.

Basically, the Vampire Disease Syndrome is when a person is petrified of the sun. People develop sunlight blisters on their skin. They suffer intense physical pain and are habitual sleepwalkers, especially on full moon nights.

This, says Dr. Banerjee, is so far prevalent among the upper middle class.

3. Cutlery Craving

This is a desire to eat metal objects and is, according to Kolkata psychiatrist Dr. Debashish Ghosh, comparatively common.

Occasionally there is an extreme case, such as that of 47-year-old Allison Ghosh, a sales manager and a mother of two. An alcoholic with a compulsion to eat silverware, Ghosh has had 18 operations to remove strange things from her stomach.

In 2002, she had eight forks and the metal sections of a mop head lodged in her body. Often, after ordering lavishly at a restaurant, she would steal and eat cutlery. “The more expensive, the better,” she told TEHELKA.

4. The Paris Syndrome

The Paris Syndrome is a condition exclusive to tourists, which causes them to have a mental breakdown while in the famous French capital.

Of the millions of tourists that visit Paris every year, about 350 are Indians. And about 12 of them suffer from some form of this disease. “The condition is basically a severe form of culture shock,” says Dr. Nalin Mukherjee, associated with the Assam Medical College and Hospital in Dibrugarh.

Polite Indian tourists who come to Paris are unable to separate their idyllic view of the city from the reality of a modern, bustling metropolis. All this eventually leads to a mental breakdown on their return.

For instance, the Japanese Embassy in New Delhi has a 24 hour hotline for tourists suffering from severe culture shock, and can provide emergency treatment if necessary.

5. Capgras Delusion

The Capgras Delusion is a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that an acquaintance, usually a spouse or another close family member, has been replaced by an identical looking impostor.

It is most common in patients with schizophrenia, although it occurs in those with dementia, or even after a brain injury.

One case report said the following:

Dipika Kawale, a 74-year old married housewife, has been treated at two Mumbai hospitals because of her belief that her husband was replaced by another man. She refused to sleep with the man she thought was an impostor.

She locked her bedroom door at night, asked her son for a gun and finally fought with the police they tried to take her to a hospital. At times, she believed her husband was her long deceased father. She easily recognised other family members and would misidentify only her husband.

6. The Pica Syndrome

People diagnosed with The Pica Syndrome have an insatiable urge to eat non-food substances like dirt, paper, glue and clay.

Though it is believed to be linked with mineral deficiency, health experts have found no real cause and no cure for this disorder. Dr. Kalyan Ghosh, a Delhi-based psychiatrist, says, “Mental health conditions, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia can sometimes cause Pica.”

Some of the traumatic events common in individuals with Pica include maternal deprivation, parental separation or neglect, and child abuse. This disease is not limited to six-month-old babies, as is largely believed.

7. Art Attack (Stendhal Syndrome)

Dr Graziella Magherini, author of The Stendhal Syndrome, has studied more than 100 tourists in Florence, Italy, who became ill in the presence of great works of art.

The symptoms include heart palpitations, dizziness, and stomach pains. The typical sufferer is between the ages of 26 and 40 and rarely leaves home. Art Attack is caused as a result of jetlag, travel stress, and the shock of an overwhelming sense of the past.

Dr. Neelina Sinha, a psychologist, believes that the syndrome has spread to India. “Very often there is an anguish of death,” she says.

Particularly upsetting works of art are: Michelangelo’s Statue of David, Caravaggio’s painting of Bacchus, and the concentric circles of the Duomo Cupola.

8. Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

Does your pet dog suddenly look like the size of a mouse? Does it seem like the piece of cake you left on the counter is now half the size of the kitchen? Does your husband look like the Mad Hatter? These illusions are the result of micropsia and macropsia, respectively, which collectively make up the Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.

Says Dr.Indraneil Banerjee, an ophthalmologist, “The size-distorting visual effects associated with the syndrome are usually temporary. They may be caused by a swelling of the corneal areas of the eye, migraine and/or the use of hallucinogenic drugs.”

Those with this syndrome often turn to creative outlets to help them cope. It is thought that Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll was suffered from this disease. Hence its name.

9. Uncombable Hair Syndrome

It lacked knots, kinks, or twists that would explain the tangling. The hair strands were strangely shaped: the cross-sections were triangular, grooved, or shaped like kidneys instead of circular.

Dr. Nalin Mukherjee says he has started treating Indian women, between the ages of 30 and 50, who have started coming in with the same problem. The unusual solution to the condition is to cut off the solidified mass of hair, he says.

10. Celebriphilia

Celebriphilia is an abnormally intense desire to have a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a celebrity. Dr. Ananda Samajpati, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, defines it thus, stating he has treated 14 men for this disorder.

In the last year alone, according to the Mumbai Police, 843 Indians, male and, were arrested or accused of stalking and sending celebrities blood-soaked letters and other such things.

For instance, 18-year-old truck helper Hari Singh was arrested last year in Jaipur for stalking actor Bipasha Basu. Singh said, “I just wanted to marry her, that’s all.”


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Posted on 17 February 2011



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