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Cartoon-based illness mystifies Japan

December 17, 1997
Web posted at: 1:42 p.m. EST (1842 GMT)

TOKYO (CNN) -- A Japanese television network called in doctors, psychologists and animation experts to find out why a popular cartoon triggered seizures in hundreds of children nationwide.

More than 700 people, mainly school children, were rushed to hospitals Tuesday after suffering convulsions, vomiting, irritated eyes and other symptoms after watching "Pokemon," a popular cartoon based on Nintendo's "Pocket Monsters" video game.

Two-hundred people, from age 3 to a 58-year-old man, were still in the hospital Wednesday with epilepsy-type symptoms more than 24 hours after the showing, the Home Affairs Ministry said.

See more, in a report from CNN's John Lewis
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The network said it plans to cancel next week's show if the cause of the incident remains unclear.

The show is Japan's most highly-rated program in its 6:30 p.m. time slot. Tuesday's episode, "Computer Warrior Porigon," featured characters fighting each other inside a computer.

Most of the children developed the symptoms about 20 minutes into the program after a scene depicting an exploding "vaccine bomb" set off to destroy a computer virus. It was followed by five seconds of flashing red light in the eyes of "Pikachu," a rat-like creature that is the show's most popular character.

Some other children were stricken later, when watching excerpts from the scene in TV news reports on the earlier victims.

TV Tokyo programming division manager Hironari Mori said the offending section passed inspection before broadcast, but in hindsight "we believe there may have been problems with presentation and production technique."

See a portion of the cartoon
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TV Tokyo imposed a health warning on future episodes, telling viewers that watching installments of "Pokemon" could cause fainting and nausea.

"I must say that as an adult that part made me blink, so for a child the effect must have been considerable," Mori said.

Mori added the network was considering compensation for the families.

Other TV networks said they were studying their cartoons to see if they posed a similar risk of "Pocket Monsters" sickness.

Dr. Yukio Fukuyama, a juvenile epilepsy expert, said that "television epilepsy" can be triggered by flashing, colorful lights. Though the phenomenon was observed before television, photosensitive epilepsy, as it is also called, has become far more common as TV has spread. The same symptoms have also been observed in children playing video games.

Fukuyama says parents should be made aware of the danger. "The networks should definitely think of issuing a health warning beforehand," he said.

Psychologist Rika Kayama, author of a book on video games and health, said that "there is the possibility of photosensitive epilepsy or group hysterics."

"The children must have been totally immersed in the program," Kayama said.

A Nintendo spokesman told Reuters that the only link between its games and the cartoons was the characters.

"We don't expect the incident will have any immediate impact on our business in the Christmas season, since the television program and game are different," the spokesman said. Nintendo's games carry a health warning.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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