Uncommon diagnosis: Havana syndrome
Uncommon The diagnosis is a MIT series on strange and unusual diseases around the world
Jhis month, we chatted with Doctor Robert Baloco-author of ‘Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria’, about Havana Syndrome, a mystery illness that has led hundreds of US government officials to mistakenly believe they had been attacked by a sonic weapon, by Paulie Doyle
Something strange happened to CIA officers and US diplomats stationed in Cuba in 2016. Just a year after the Obama administration opened diplomatic ties with the small socialist country, officials working in the new embassy from the United States to Cuba began to experience debilitating and debilitating neurological symptoms: dizziness. , nausea, headache and hearing loss.
Those who suffered from the bizarre disease also reported hearing a high-pitched shrill sound. This prompted several CIA agents to attribute what was happening to a high-tech sonic weapon used by the Cuban government to attack Americans.
Soon, 15 Cuban diplomats were expelled from Washington by the Trump administration. Most of the staff also fled the United States Embassy in Cuba. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply. By 2021, more than 200 U.S. officials stationed around the world would have reported similar symptoms, just like those seen in Havana. Last September, President Joe Biden signed a bill that would compensate victims of the mysterious disease known as “Havana Syndrome”.
Not everyone believed foul play was responsible. While some members of the scientific community suggested that patients may have been subjected to “microwave attacks”, others were much more reserved. Among them was Dr. Robert Baloh, who, after reviewing the available data, determined that Havana syndrome was psychosomatic, meaning that he had real symptoms caused by outside factors, but not by the disease. .
With Robert E. Bartholomew, he published a book on the subject, “Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria”. Baloh’s work on the subject led Florida Senator Marco Rubio to call him a “foreign agent” who was actively trying to undermine U.S. national security concerns.
But in January of this year, a CIA report admitted what Baloh, Bartholomew and other scientists have always said: Havana syndrome is a mass psychogenic disease. Dr. Baloh recently sat down with IMT to discuss this very particular condition.
When did you become interested in mass psychogenic diseases?
My area of expertise is the vestibular system. It deals with the inner ear. It is the balance system and its connections in the brain. For many years I ran a dizziness clinic. I have seen people with dizziness for many, many years. Many of them are considered psychogenic or psychosomatic.
The symptoms are real, but they are not sick. I want to give you a little insight into the condition of Persistent Postural Perceptual Vertigo. This is a fairly common type of vertigo. The patient says “I have vertigo 24/7” for months, years. They become concerned about it – yet you do extensive testing and find no objective abnormalities. They obviously suffer from vertigo; it can take over their lives.
And what about the Havana syndrome itself? How did you first hear about it?
I read it for the first time in the newspaper, like everyone else. At the time, there was a fairly vague description. These patients had dizziness and a whole range of symptoms that I see regularly in my clinic.
Of course, I was surprised and very interested in the description. These patients were attacked by a secret weapon, a kind of sonic weapon! It is also in my area of study: the inner ear, the auditory and vestibular system. I have written a lot about this. But I didn’t understand any type of sonic weapon that could damage the brain, as they suggested. It made no sense.
What did you find when you started to inquire?
I got really involved in the subject at the beginning of 2018. At that time, the original article on the subject was to be published in a journal, and it was sent to me for proofreading. I thought it would be interesting to read; I was finally going to have more details. As I said, what I read in the newspapers was very sketchy. But after reading the academic paper, I felt like I knew less than before.
They concluded that these patients had brain damage. I felt there was no evidence at all, and there are tests, non-specific tests, that didn’t document brain damage. They [the scientists] also suggested some brain dysfunction, but the kind we see in people with persistent postural perception vertigo (PPPD) or people with anxiety or a whole range of non-specific disorders.
The patients’ hearing tests were normal, despite the fact that they were reported to have hearing loss from this “attack”. It was very painful. On top of that, people were making statements like “there was information about the weapons, but it’s classified by the government, we can’t provide any of that information.” It’s not something I’m used to seeing in scientific reports!
It seems strange and very, very frustrating.
Science usually involves providing information so that people can examine and test it, and find out if there is any supporting evidence. We were basically being asked, “Take our word for it, these people were attacked by a sonic weapon, a mysterious sonic weapon, and they suffered brain damage. They used the term “concussion without concussion”, which was also very weird. So my feeling was that it was not acceptable. I recommended that the article be rejected and not published unless they quickly provide more details and more convincing evidence.
…And then they went ahead and released it anyway? What was the fallout like?
Yes it was published, they did. Soon people were interested in it because it was so sensational. I indicated that there would be a scientific backlash if it were published. And there was. Many letters have been sent and people have expressed their concerns. That’s when I really got into it.
Because I had to do a lot of reading and try to find all the information I could about it. And at that time, I was in communication with Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist and psychologist in New Zealand. We ended up writing a book that gave as much detail as we could get at that time. We provided very detailed references of all the material, and why we were very suspicious that it was some kind of secret weapon used by a foreign government. The president and several senators concluded that it was the Cubans, but without any proof. They just decided it was the Cubans. And of course, why would Cubans want to do that? They were certainly pleased with the opening of relations with the United States during the Obama era. And that basically led to shutting it down completely.
How did people manage to prove it was a fraud?
The so called JASON [a group of scientists which advises the US government on matters of science and technology] report, which was withheld without reason, said it was extremely unlikely that it was microwaves or sound waves. This was just published after a reporter from News Feed filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act. He also sent it to me for review, actually. They went through these recordings, interviewed everyone. And they concluded that it was extremely unlikely that it was a sonic weapon or a microwave weapon. In fact, they listened to recordings made by some officers and concluded that what they were hearing were crickets.
Is there a particular cohort likely to develop mass psychogenic disease?
Why does mass psychogenic illness start in people? Often, an important person within a subgroup or group of people will show the first symptoms. Often the first symptoms are a real disease, or they certainly can be. The human brain is remarkable in that it is not like a computer. We don’t have memory chips that we put memories into, unaffected by anything else. Everything we learn is affected by our beliefs and background information. Our beliefs can change the facts. This is the center of it all. It’s a perfect example of how if you believe something, there’s a good chance it will happen. It happens all the time. There is even what is called the “nocebo effect”, the opposite of the placebo effect. We saw it during the trials of the Covid vaccine: recent studies suggest that at least 50-75% of people who reported symptoms based on what they saw in the placebo group were due to this effect ” wedding”.
We live in a time of tremendous anxiety and stress. Should we, in turn, see more episodes of mass psychogenic illness, or mass hysteria? We see it right now. But I don’t like the term “hysteria”. Most people don’t understand psychogenic illness, including almost all doctors. In the article I mentioned, there was a discussion of mass psychogenic illnesses, and they said that was not possible because most of the patients were male. These are crazy ideas. This suggests that women are primarily susceptible to mass psychogenic illnesses, which is an archaic idea based on hysteria. There is also a stereotype that only weak people can get it. Everyone is susceptible to psychosomatic symptoms.
There have been many studies showing how common it is. They ask how many symptoms people have had in the last week, and sometimes 90% of people say they have. It is therefore much more common to have symptoms than not to have them. And most of these symptoms are psychosomatic. And if you find yourself in a stressful situation, stress is almost always at the root of the problems you will encounter.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.