Fact file

What is Havana syndrome?

US diplomats in countries ranging from China to Germany have reported symptoms of mysterious condition

At least two US officials stationed in Germany have reportedly been treated for symptoms consistent with Havana syndrome, adding to a growing list of countries where the little-understood condition has been detected.

According to The Wall Street Journal, US diplomats claim that the symptoms affecting officials in Germany emerged “in recent months and some victims were left unable to work”.

The insiders also “said similar incidents had been registered among American officials stationed in other European nations, but declined to provide any detail”, the paper added.

What is Havana syndrome?

The latest cases mark “the first time suspected instances of the mysterious ailment have been reported in Germany”, said Berlin-based broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW).

The mysterious sickness was first detected in 2016 among US diplomats and their families stationed in Cuba. Similar cases have since been reported in China, Russia and Vienna, and inside the US.

Some personnel have had to step down from active service owing to complications linked to Havana syndrome.

According to MedicineNet, the symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Light sensitivity
  • Migraines
  • Nosebleeds
  • Hearing loud, piercing noises during the night
  • Recurrent vertigo
Possible causes

Investigators originally suspected that Havana syndrome was caused by accidental or deliberate exposure to a toxic chemical, pesticide, or drug. However, no traces of such agents were found in affected people or their homes.

Other experts have argued that the symptoms may be the result of the stress and uncertainty of living in a hostile foreign country where diplomats are under constant surveillance. “There is no need to resort to exotic explanations, ” said a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2019.

“Claims that the patients were suffering from brain and auditory damage are not borne out by the data,” wrote the study authors, New Zealand-based socialogist Robert Bartholomew and neurodegenerative diseases expert Robert W. Baloh of the UCLA Medical Center in the US.

However, a report published last December by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the US said that “many of the distinctive and acute signs, symptoms and observations reported by (government) employees are consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy”.

According to MedicineNet, “highly specialised bioweaponry” could theoretically create microbubbles in the fluid inside a person’s ear. And if these bubbles travelled through the blood into the brain, they could cause “minute air emboli that result in cell damage, similar to decompression sickness”.

Another possible explanation for Havana syndrome is that the symptoms “may be due to direct penetration of radiofrequency waves into the skull, which disrupts electrical and chemical activity in the brain and rewires certain neural pathways”, said the medical information site. 

Some officials and commentators have pointed to the Chinese military’s use of “high-energy electromagnetic radiation” technology last year to effectively turn two strategically important hilltops in the Himalayas that had been occupied by Indian soldiers into a microwave oven. The attack was said to have left Indian troops vomiting and unable to stand, allowing the People’s Liberation Army to retake the hilltops without firing a shot.

However, other officials believe that Moscow may be behind Havana syndrome.

As speculation continues, DW has reported that during a “high-level meeting of intelligence officials” earlier this month, intelligence chief Avril Haines “said the US is still unsure what is causing the ‘anomalous health incidents’”.

Treatments

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of affected individuals has revealed “differences in the white matter (the paler tissue of the brain and spinal cord that mainly contains bundles of myelinated nerve fibers) structure” compared with that in healthy people, said MedicineNet. “This supports the hypothesis that Havana syndrome is a disorder involving non-specific and unfathomable changes in brain activity and structure.”

Treatments for these changes include alternative medicine techniques including art therapy, meditation, breathing exercises and acupuncture.

Neurological and cognitive exercises such as repetitive complex movements of the upper and lower limbs, and balance challenges, have also been used as part of rehabilitation programmes.

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