April 6, 2007 / 11:07 PM / 12 years ago

Hundreds sick in Mexico religious school mystery

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Hundreds of girls at a Mexican boarding school run by Catholic nuns have been struck by a mystery illness that authorities say is psychological, raising questions about conditions inside the academy.

Headmistress Margie Cheong, a nun from South Korea, said on Friday it was unclear what had caused the symptoms, which include difficulty walking and nausea.

“We really don’t know the cause, but the diagnosis by health authorities is of a psychological ailment,” Cheong said.

Some 600 of the 4,000 girls at the Villa de las Ninas school had been affected, she said, and 300 children had left the school, which offers a free secondary education to children from poor families.

Television images showed parents taking their children from the school, some carried in their arms, others grasped tightly to stop them falling over.

Cheong said she had only recently alerted parents and authorities of the illnesses, despite the first cases having appeared in October, because she did not want to cause panic.

Government psychologists will begin interviews with pupils next week to determine what happened.

Some of the students have complained of overstrict disciplinary measures like being sent to sleep in an enclosure that houses sheep.

Student Genesis Mauries says she was treated for a year for a lump on her neck with a scalding paste made from a Korean herb, which was placed in three places on her back where she now has three round scars. Since leaving the school she has been diagnosed with cancer.

Villa de las Ninas is on the outskirts of Mexico City and is run by the Sisters of Mary, a religious order founded in South Korea by U.S.-born Aloysius Schwartz, who died in 1992.

Cheong denied she had mistreated her pupils but said she would accept responsibility if the government investigations said otherwise.

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