The mysterious illness that is ringing in Uncle Sam’s ears
Havana Syndrome is the name for a series of mysterious health incidents first reported by American diplomats and other government employees in the Cuban capital in late 2016. It manages to remain a mystery for the world even after five years. Sufferers have reported hearing loud noise, loss of balance, intense head pressure and vision problems. Many continued to experience these or other health problems for some time. Similar unexplained incidents have since been reported by US officials and family members in other countries, including Germany, Austria, Russia and China. Several spies and diplomats have been severely affected by the syndrome, with some complaining that they even retired from their jobs due to this “illness”.
Why the name
The syndrome was named after the Cuban capital post the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington and pulling out of US diplomats from Havana by the Trump administration.
The US government accused Cuba of perpetrating the attacks and reduced the staff to the embassy to a minimum. In turn, the Cuban Foreign Minister denied any involvement and accused the US of lying about the incident.
First reported case
In 2016, several US diplomats and other employees stationed in Cuba’s capital, Havana, reported falling ill after hearing strange sounds and experiencing odd physical sensations in their hotel rooms or homes. Since then, more than 200 US officials have fallen sick with Havana syndrome, according to CIA Director William Burns. In addition to the above, several Canadian diplomats have reported similar symptoms in Havana, the capital of Cuba. It is worth mentioning that Cuba has denied any knowledge of the illness.
According to MedicineNet, the symptoms include:
ü Difficulty in concentrating
ü Memory problems
ü Light sensitivity
ü Hearing loud, piercing noises during the night
ü Recurrent vertigo (a feeling that you are about to fall)
Persistence of symptoms
Till now, the symptoms went away quickly for some, but for others, they have lingered on for a long time.
The cause for Havana syndrome has not been ascertained yet. While investigations are on, the US agencies are still unsure of what causes Havana syndrome. They believed the syndrome was being “intentionally” caused. The CIA and the Pentagon don’t believe this is a naturally occurring illness – to them, it’s a deliberate act of aggression. A study commissioned by the State Department said the most likely source is a pulse of radiofrequency energy “directed” at US targets.
At first, Havana syndrome was said to be a “psychogenic illness”. Eventually, a variety of theories started floating to explain the incidents.
From the possibility of targeted microwaves or sonic attack to perhaps an espionage or hacking effort — every possible reason for the cause of this mysterious syndrome has been weighed in, but to no avail.
What research tells?
Initially, American officials pointed the finger at sonic weapons, i.e. devices that use sound to disturb and disorient. But this theory was scrapped because sound waves at frequencies outside the range of human hearing cannot cause concussion-like symptoms. Next they considered microwaves.
Later, in December 2020, a report by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) was published by researchers who analysed the plausible cause of Havana syndrome. The study revealed directed and pulsed radio frequency energy as the most “plausible” cause for this syndrome.
“An Assessment of Illness in US Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies” says that among the mechanisms the committee considered, directed, pulsed radio frequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases, especially in individuals with the distinct early symptoms.
“The committee found these cases quite concerning, in part because of the plausible role of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy as a mechanism, but also because of the significant suffering and debility that has occurred in some of these individuals,” committee chair David Relman, Thomas C. and Joan M. were quoted as saying.
Besides this, some researchers also considered microwave weapons to be “a main suspect” for the syndrome.
James Giordano, a professor at Georgetown University who has also worked with the State Department on investigating the Havana cases, says, “There is evidence of brain injuries in several people, suggesting they may have been affected by radio waves.” He identified two possible sources. One is a device used to directly target people. Another is a tool that used energy waves for intelligence gathering.
Some scientists, however, disagreed with the findings.
Robert Baloh is a medical doctor from the University of California, Los Angeles. He and Robert Bartholomew of Botany College in New Zealand wrote in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, “the most likely explanation for the recent outbreak of mysterious symptoms in Cuba and elsewhere is mass psychogenic illness.” A mass psychogenic illness is when people learn of sickness among others in their group and begin to feel sick themselves.
Some propose a third explanation: this can occur when people in a group perceive the same symptoms, despite no external cause. Its supporters believe that there is no underlying disease, even though the symptoms are real and distressing. The extreme stress of living under round-the-clock surveillance in Cuba, which had only just restored diplomatic ties with America in 2015, may have contributed.
Although nearly one-third of individuals reported hearing loss from the attacks in Cuba, a standard test found that loss actually occurred in just two out of 21 people—both of whom suffered before the events in Cuba. Brain scans showed changes to white matter (the tissue that makes up around 60% of the brain) in three out of 21 patients, which is not unusual for a group of normal test subjects of that sample size.
What are microwave weapons?
These are believed to be a type of direct energy weapons aiming highly focussed energy in the form of sonar, laser or microwaves at targets. People exposed to these have reported a clicking or buzzing sound as if seeming to be coming from within their heads. Microwave weapons have both acute and long-term effects and leave no signs of physical damage.
These weapons have been developed by a number of countries to target both humans and electronic systems. For instance, China displayed its microwave weapon, Poly WB-1, at an air show in 2014. A prototype microwave-style weapon, “Active Denial System,” developed by the US