'Tea-poisoning' leaves Taiwanese students' hands shaking for a week

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Three students from a Tainan high school have been suffering from uncontrollable shaking of hands for a week since they drank black tea prepared by the school during a field trip on Oct. 25.

A total of 12 students from the Tainan Municipal Chongming Junior High School received medical care after drinking the tea brewed by the school as part of their school snack during the field trip. Three of them, all female students, are still hospitalized after showing symptoms including hand shaking and difficulty breathing.

Earlier speculations of a ketamine- or poison-laced tea were disproved by tests conducted by the Tainan City Department of Health that found no traces of chemicals or bacteria that might have proved to be the cause of the symptoms. The department said it is looking into other possible toxins, such as pesticide residues.

Chang Ching-pei, a pediatrician at the Tainan Municipal Hospital, was quoted by the United Daily News as saying that the duration of the students' symptoms did not conform with that of typical food poisoning incidents. Individuals suffering from food poisoning should see symptoms alleviate in days as their bodies metabolize the toxins.

Meanwhile, some psychiatrists are pointing to mass hysteria as a possible cause, Mass hysteria is an extreme case of emotional contagion in which insinuations or delusions of threats spreading rapidly in a group results in spontaneous manifestations of similar physical symptoms among group members. Closely knit social groups such as high school classes are generally more susceptible to mass hysteria, health experts pointed out.

Huang Lung-cheng, a psychiatrist at the Tainan-based Chimei Medical Center, cited research by the Taipei Veterans General Hospital that links mass hysteria to human mirror neurons. The fact that women generally have more responsive mirror neurons than men also corresponds to the gender of the students suffering from hand-shaking in this case, he said. Huang, however, stressed that health authorities should first rule out all possibilities of mass food poisoning before moving on to investigating psychological causes.