Resignation syndrome: Sweden’s mystery illness

For nearly two decades Sweden has been battling a mysterious illness. Called Resignation Syndrome, it affects only the children of asylum-seekers, who withdraw completely, ceasing to walk or talk, or open their eyes. Eventually they recover. But why does this only seem to occur in Sweden?

When her father picks her up from her wheelchair, nine-year-old Sophie is lifeless. In contrast, her hair is thick and shiny – like a healthy child’s. But Sophie’s eyes are closed. And under her tracksuit bottoms she wears a nappy. A transparent feeding tube runs into Sophie’s nose – this is how she has been nourished for the past 20 months.

Sophie and her family are asylum seekers from the former USSR. They arrived in December 2015 and live in accommodation allocated to refugees in a small town in central Sweden.

“Her blood pressure is quite normal,” says Dr Elisabeth Hultcrantz, a volunteer with Doctors of the World. “But she has a high pulse rate, so maybe she’s reacting to so many people coming to visit her today.”

Hultcrantz tests Sophie’s reflexes. Everything works normally. But the child does not stir.

An ENT surgeon before she retired, Hultcrantz is worried because Sophie does not ever open her mouth. This could be dangerous, because if there were a problem with her feeding tube, Sophie could choke.

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Elisabeth Hultcrantz: Children disconnect the conscious part of their brain

So how could a child who loved to dance become so deeply inert?

“When I explain to the parents what has happened, I tell them the world has been so terrible that Sophie has gone into herself and disconnected the conscious part of her brain,” says Hultcrantz.

The health professionals who treat these children agree that trauma is what has caused them to withdraw from the world. The children who are most vulnerable are those who have witnessed extreme violence – often against their parents – or whose families have fled a deeply insecure environment.

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