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What is Havana Syndrome?

Updated: Aug 29, 2021

Havana syndrome was first reported by American and Canadian embassy staff in Cuba in late 2016. It has occurred within the United States, Cuba, China, Russia, Poland, Georgia, Taiwan, Australia, Germany, Austria, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and most recently in Vietnam. One such incident occurred near the White House last November.

Symptoms typically had a sudden onset. Victims would begin hearing strange grating noises coming from a specific direction. Some experienced it as a pressure or a vibration; comparable to driving a car with the window partly rolled down. This lasted between 20 seconds to 30 minutes, and always happened while they were at home or in hotel rooms. Family members and guests in neighboring rooms did not report similar symptoms.

A sonic weapon has been speculated to have been used, with some pointing to infrasound as a possible cause. The National Academy of Sciences said “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy” to be the most probable cause of Havana Syndrome. Two possible sources have been identified. One, a device used to directly target people. Another, a tool that used energy waves for intelligence gathering.

However, Robert Baloh, a medical doctor from the University of California along with Robert Bartholomew of Botany College in New Zealand wrote, “the most likely explanation for the recent outbreak of mysterious symptoms in Cuba and elsewhere is mass psychogenic illness.” When people learn of sickness among others in their group and begin to feel sick themselves.

The syndrome has almost uniformly affected U.S. officials. Yet for several years, senior government officials explained the symptoms away as people under stress or reacting with hysteria to unknown stimuli.

Vice President Kamala Harris had to delay her trip from Singapore to Vietnam for three hours due to "a recent possible anomalous health incident." At least two U.S. personnel afflicted with the syndrome will be medevaced over the weekend.

Until recently, the number of reported incidents among U.S. officials has been kept under wraps. Following the Hanoi incident, former CIA operative Marc Polymeropoulos, himself a victim of the syndrome in 2017, said the volume of attacks appeared to be mounting. He added, "It would seem to me that our adversaries are sending a clear message. This is a message that they can get at our senior VIPs."

In March 2018, MRI scans and other tests on an unspecified number of Canadian diplomats showed evidence of brain damage that mirrored concussions. University of Pennsylvania, at the request of the U.S. government, conducted a study which "found no evidence of white matter tract abnormalities," and described "a new syndrome in the diplomats that resembles persistent concussion."

The National Academy of Sciences studied the available cases and concluded they appeared to represent a distinctive set of symptoms unlike any other known disorder. But on August 9th, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said that they remained stumped.

Havana syndrome has affected more than 200 U.S. officials and their family members. Many continued to experience these health problems for some time. One U.S. diplomat said he now needs a hearing aid due to the incident.

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