What is ‘Havana Syndrome’?

Source: By The Indian Express

The United States government 24 August 2021 said Vice-President Kamala Harris’s trip from Singapore to Vietnam was delayed by three hours due to a “recent possible anomalous health incident” in Hanoi. This was in reference to a case of ‘Havana Syndrome’, according to The Associated Press. Harris later flew to the Vietnamese capital as part of her scheduled trip across Asia.

Harris’s trip was delayed after reports suggested someone in Hanoi had come down with ‘Havana Syndrome’. While there was little information divulged by the government. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the case was reported before Harris’s departure, but not confirmed. She added that a safety assessment was conducted before Harris resumed travel.

The local US Embassy was quoted as saying by Reuters, “The Vice President’s office was made aware of a report of a recent possible anomalous health incident in Hanoi.”

What is Havana syndrome?

Back in 2016, reports first emerged of US diplomats and other employees of the government falling ill in Havana, the capital of Cuba. The patients said they heard strange sounds and experienced odd physical sensations in their hotel rooms or homes. They said they had symptoms of nausea, severe headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sleep problems and hearing loss. This mysterious illness came to be called the “Havana Syndrome”.

Since then, according to the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns, over 200 US officials have fallen ill with the Havana Syndrome. Not just US officials, there have also been cases of Canadian citizens reporting similar symptoms in Havana.

While the symptoms have resolved for some of the affected employees, for others, the effects have lingered and posed a significant obstacle to their work and affected normal functioning of lives. Cuba has denied any knowledge of the illness.

How the US has responded to Havana Syndrome

The US has come to believe there is a “very strong possibility” the syndrome is intentionally caused.

Over the years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, CIA, US military, National Institutes of Health, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have investigated the incidents without coming out with anything conclusive. Some scientists even peddled theories like “psychological illness” due to the stressful environment of foreign missions.

However, in December 2020, a report by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) found “directed energy beams” as a “plausible” cause of the Havana Syndrome.

The NAS report, titled ‘An assessment of illness in US government employees and their families at overseas embassies’, by a committee of 19 experts in medicine and other fields examined four possibilities to explain the symptoms — infection, chemicals, psychological factors and microwave energy. The experts examined the symptoms of about 40 government employees.

The report concluded that “directed pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered”.

By calling it “directed” and “pulsed” energy, the report left no room for confusion that the victims’ exposure was targeted and not due to common sources of microwave energy, such as, a mobile phone. The report also mentioned that the immediate symptoms patients reported — including sensations of pain and buzzing sound — apparently emanated from a particular direction, or occurred in a specific spot in a room.

The more chronic problems suffered by Havana personnel included mainly “vestibular processing and cognitive problems as well as insomnia and headache”, the report mentioned. However, it also said “the committee cannot rule out other possible mechanisms and considers it likely that a multiplicity of factors explains some cases and the differences between others”.

The report warned about the possibility of future episodes and recommended that the State Department establish a response mechanism for similar incidents. “The larger issue is preparedness for new and unknown threats that might compromise the health and safety of US diplomats serving abroad,” the report said, adding that future incidents might be “more dispersed in time and place, and even more difficult to recognise quickly”.