Havana syndrome explained: What could be causing ‘phantom’ symptoms?
Havana syndrome, the mysterious ailment that has struck US diplomats, tourists and others around the world has confounded experts for years.
A recent report by US intelligence officials found that rumors Russia – or another adversary – was attacking Americans with directed energy are likely untrue.
This may have created more questions than answers, as now the world is left wondering what caused these illnesses.
Here DailyMail.com explains what it means for the larger search for an explanation:
After US officials and embassy staff reported hundreds of cases in nearly 70 countries, new reports of Havana syndrome declined sharply starting in early 2022
What does the latest intelligence report add?
Since cases of anomalous health incidents (AHIs), known colloquially as Havana syndrome, began cropping up among diplomats stationed there in 2016, defense officials, victims, and lawmakers have been alleging that a foreign adversary has clandestinely weaponized pulsed electromagnetic energy and ultrasound technology.
Five US intelligence agencies have determined it was ‘very unlikely’ that a foreign adversary was responsible for the symptoms, which are wide-ranging and include pain and ringing in the ears, splitting headaches, cognitive difficulties, dizziness, and nausea.
For some of the roughly 1,000 cases in the US, symptoms are chronic.
Shattering the long-disputed idea that US officials were being purposely attacked, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said on Wednesday: ‘[Intelligence community] agencies assess that symptoms reported by U.S. personnel were probably the result of factors that did not involve a foreign adversary, such as preexisting conditions, conventional illnesses, and environmental factors.’
Officials behind the report also said that they found no common threads among different cases or any evidence that a foreign power had used a form of directed energy such as radio waves or ultrasonic beams.
Despite the intelligence community’s consensus, the debate is not over, as some Republican lawmakers have said.
Florida Sen Marco Rubio said on Thursday: ‘Upon first glance, I am concerned that the intelligence Community effectively concluded that U.S. personnel, who reported AHI symptoms, were simply experiencing symptoms caused by environmental factors, illness, or preexisting conditions and is potentially rushing to a conclusion while a substantial number of questions remain.
‘As I have said before, something happened here and just because you don’t have all the answers, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. I will not accept that all these reported cases were just coincidences.’
The mysterious aliment is named for the US embassy in Havana (above) where the first cases were reported in 2016, and hundreds of people have since reported symptoms
Where did the term ‘Havana syndrome’ come from?
The name has its roots in the original cases beginning in November 2016 through June 2018 among 25 US diplomats stationed in Havana, Cuba.
The State Department described what it saw as ‘medically confirmed symptoms’ including headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, confusion and disorientation.
In some cases, they also include trouble walking, insomnia, sensitivity to sound, ear pain and pressure, tinnitus and brain abnormalities similar to concussion-like symptoms.
After the first cases appeared in Cuba and were made public knowledge, diplomats abroad in countries such as Uzbekistan, China, Germany, Vietnam, and Colombia.
Even before determining the cause, officials in the former Trump administration decided that the cases were a byproduct of foul play by the Cuban government, straining already fraught relations with the Communist-run island.
What could be causing it?
The origin of the anomalous condition is unclear, though some experts posit that this was a case of mass psychogenic illness.
Scientists in California and New Zealand argued in 2020 that the rise of mysterious symptoms in Havana was a psychological response to the stressful post-Cold War conditions in which diplomats were living as well as rumors of a ‘new and enigmatic sonic device.’
They said: ‘These psychogenic symptoms associated with American soldiers living under continuous stress parallel those reported by the US diplomats working under continuous surveillance while living on foreign soil under the spectre of the Cold War.
‘The symptoms of the American diplomats in Havana closely parallel those associated with war trauma – right down to the concussion-like symptoms that have often confounded physicians who have misdiagnosed it as brain trauma in the past.’
Further complicating the situation, the Trump-era Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told roughly 3 million military personnel, civilian officials, and contractors in a letter two years ago to be on the lookout for symptoms consistent with so-called Havana syndrome.
Meanwhile, a scientific review in 2020 determined that radiofrequency energy, a type of radiation that includes microwaves, was the most likely cause of the injuries.
It wasn’t until two years later that the intelligence community concluded that the mysterious cases were unlikely to have been caused by Russia or another foreign adversary, which served as a basis for the most recent IC report this week.
Were cases elsewhere similar to those in Cuba?
The issue began with a smattering of reports among diplomats in Cuba, but it has since expanded to around 1,000 people – both US citizens and foreign officials – claiming to have suffered similar symptoms.
In January 2019 as his symptoms worsened, a senior Canadian diplomat was pulled from his post in Havana.
An unnamed Ottawa-area diplomat experienced memory loss, cognitive difficulties and dizziness, and said he felt like ‘a zombie.’
In China, US diplomat Catherine Werner was jolted awake one night in 2017 by a pulsing, humming sound in her apartment in Guangzhou, China.
She also felt intense pressure in her head. While the noises and sensations returned nightly, her health continued to decline with frequent vomiting, headaches, and loss of balance.
Once medevaced to the states, it was determined that Ms Werner had a vision disorder, a balance disorder and an ‘organic brain injury’ — diagnoses similar to those of the roughly two-dozen diplomats who fell ill in Cuba starting in 2016.
What happens now?
President Joe Biden has been fairly mum on the topic of Havana syndrome with the exception of signing the 2021 Havana Act authorizing Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and the CIA director, William J. Burns, to give financial support to employees who have suffered brain injuries.
When asked whether the President was satisfied with the intelligence community’s determination, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre obfuscated with an indirect answer.
She said: ‘What’s important to the president is that we take this very seriously, as the intelligence community has.
‘What we are committed to is making sure that our workforce and their families get the assistance that they need through the medical care. And look, the work is ongoing.’
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, likely will not stop pressing for investigation into the causes of Havana syndrome.
In addition to Sen Rubio weighing in, GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, also of Florida, said: ‘This report is a brazen precursor to the Biden Administration removing Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism– a measure they have been working on since taking office.
‘The speculation of the causes as “preexisting conditions, conventional illnesses, and environmental factors” is not only at odds with the findings of a panel of experts and fails to adequately name the cause of what occurred, but the report is an insult to the dozens of hard-working U.S. staff and their families who suffered serious brain damage and other symptoms as a result of these AHI’s.’
What is ‘Havana Syndrome’? The mysterious illness that started in the US embassy in Cuba and causes memory and hearing loss
The problem has been labeled the ‘Havana Syndrome,’ because the first cases affected personnel in 2016 at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.
At least 200 cases across the government are now under investigation.
People who are believed to have been affected have reported headaches, dizziness and symptoms consistent with concussions, with some requiring months of medical treatment. Some have reported hearing a loud noise before the sudden onset of symptoms.
Countries its been reported in: Cuba, United States, China, Russia, Vietnam, Austria, Germany, Serbia, United Kingdom, Georgia, Poland, Taiwan, Australia, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan