What is Havana Syndrome? The mysterious illness that could be caused by chemicals, panic, or something more sinister
For many who suffer from this mysterious disease, it starts with a strange noise.
The metallic whirring is soon followed by a series of strange symptoms: dizziness, nausea, and memory loss are the most common.
For some, the symptoms are so debilitating and prolonged that they are no longer able to function.
Hundreds of cases have been reported across the world, and almost all patients have something in common.
They are diplomats, spies and military personnel working in American embassies abroad.
The United States is rushing to find out what, and potentially, could be causing Havana Syndrome.
But some experts believe that even though sufferers experience real symptoms, the cause lies in their own mind.
This is all we know about this mysterious disease.
When did it all start?
The first cases of the disease were reported in 2016 among US officials stationed in Cuba.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana had only been open for several months as the two countries continued closer ties after decades of hostility.
An American official told ProPublica in 2018 that for him it started with strange noises outside his Havana resort.
âIt was boring to the point of having to come into the house and close all the windows and doors and turn on the television,â he said.
“But I was never particularly worried about it. I was like, ‘I’m in a strange land, and the bugs here are making noise.'”
Although he never fell ill, his colleagues had also started to notice a strange cicada-like purr outside their homes.
As many of them fell ill, panic began to set in.
A total of 26 people associated with the United States Embassy contracted Havana Syndrome.
Doctors are unsure of the root cause, which makes it difficult to fully treat people with the condition.
The disease is unlike any other existing medical disorder, according to a 2020 report of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
What could possibly be going on here?
No one knows for sure what causes Havana Syndrome, but the disease is spreading.
Cases have been reported among US officials in China, Austria, Vietnam, India and Serbia.
Family members of U.S. personnel, including several children, have also reported symptoms.
Some believe it could be related to exposure to certain chemicals in pesticides, while others say it could be caused by an unknown infectious disease and even psychological issues.
Two sociologists insisted in 2018 that the disease was a mass illusion.
âWhat is most likely? Â»Robert BarthÃ©lemy and Robert Baloh requested in their research paper.
This is called mass psychogenic hysteria, and it occurs when the stress and fear surrounding an epidemic or unknown disease subconsciously causes people to start noticing symptoms in their bodies.
In 1944 for example, dozens of people in the US state of Illinois went to hospital with paralysis of the legs, cough, nausea, and vomiting.
They all believed they had been poisoned by a man known as Mad Gasser from Mattoon.
The problem was that such a person had never existed.
In 2018, a US government study recently obtained by BuzzFeed News found that eight of the earliest cases of Havana Syndrome in Cuba were triggered by crickets.
This would mean that even if they had real physical symptoms, the cause was psychological.
However, three years later, another US government report concluded that the cause appears to be “consistent with the effects of directed and pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy.”
Can noise really make you sick?
When Dr. James Lin, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, first heard of the disease, he thought it sounded surprisingly like his research on microwave energy.
According to Dr. Lin, the effects of this type of energy can occur instantly, and the technology used to transmit it is quite mobile.
âEverything you need is off the shelf, so you can make a system that’s pretty portable and can fit in the back of an SUV,â he told the ABC.
While some experts have called the “science fiction” microwave theory, MRI scans performed on 40 people with Havana Syndrome showed tangible changes in their brains.
Their analyzes were “similar to those found in persistent concussion syndrome, but there was no evidence of blunt head trauma,” the researchers found.
Ultimately, the mysterious nature of Havana Syndrome only makes things worse for patients, according to Dr Jeffrey Staab, who served on the committee that released the government’s report.
“Regardless of the type of basic symptoms … the uncertainty of the diagnosis, the inconsistent or contradictory diagnoses they received from different places and different doctors they saw, the partial response to the treatments they received all add a level of psychosocial load, “he said.
So who could be behind Havana Syndrome?
The discovery of mysterious medical cases has strained the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba.
The United States has drastically reduced staff at its Havana embassy and even expelled Cuban officials from the embassy in Washington.
The Cuban government has repeatedly denied that it was the cause of the disease or that it knew who was behind the alleged attacks.
Another possible culprit has been named: the former enemy of the Cold War, Russia.
“[It] could be [Russia], but honestly, I can’tâ¦ I don’t want to suggest until we can draw more definitive conclusions that it might be, âsaid CIA Director William Burns.
“But there are a number of possibilities.”
Moscow has repeatedly rejected accusations that it is involved in or “directed microwave weapons”.
“Such provocative and baseless speculations and fanciful assumptions cannot really be considered a serious matter to comment on,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The only option left for the US government is to continue trying to solve the Havana Syndrome mystery and, hopefully, one day uncover its source.
âNo one knows for sure,â Dr. Lin said.
“The only people who can tell us that and let us know for sure are who did it, and we don’t know who did it.”