How do you stop an epidemic that spreads by word of mouth?

When US diplomats in the Chinese city of Guangzhou recently started reporting strange, inexplicable symptoms of unknown origin—and which seemed to be spreading among State Department employees—I was reminded of a similar “mystery illness” that I spent some time researching a few hours south of Guangzhou, in a village called Fuhu.

One afternoon in May of 2004, a third-grade boy at a local school in Fuhu reported feeling that his genitals were shrinking. He panicked, ran home, and his...

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