Hysteria blamed for Cola alarm

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THE COCA-COLA scare that left hundreds of people across Belgium nursing headaches, stomach upsets and nausea after imbibing the the world's most ubiquitous fizzy drink was due to an outbreak of mass hysteria, scientists said yesterday.

Sales of Coca-Cola were banned in France, Luxembourg and Belgium last month after an outbreak of illness among pupils at one school in Flanders. After media reports, the illness rapidly spread, claiming hundreds of victims. The scare was one of the worst in Coca-Cola's history.

But Professor Benoit Nemery and colleagues from the University of Leuven, Belgium, say in a letter to The Lancet that the evidence points to a psychological cause. They say that fears over modern foods triggered by the dioxin crisis that occurred in Belgium a few weeks ago led to the later outbreak of what they term a "mass sociogenic illness".

Taking into account fears over modern foods, they say it is "probably significant that a company with such a high visibility and symbolic image was involved in this episode". They suggest that the desire to compensate for the mismanagement of the dioxin crisis led health authorities and the Coca-Cola company to over-react, aggravating the scare.

Recognising the episode as a psychological illness avoids unnecessary treatment. The authors say: "The value of this diagnosis is to recognise that victims need social healing and not medical care."