In late 2016, an American diplomat sat down to unwind after a long day. Stationed in Havana and with his cover intact, the CIA spy still had to keep vigilant despite the improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba. As he headed towards the kitchen to grab a drink, a high-pitched, painful sound suddenly hit him, described as metal scraping against metal. He felt pressure directly below his temples, escalating to a sharp and painful headache. As he staggered outside, the pulsing sound began to fade, and the tension in his head eased. However, his mind still felt foggy the next day. What had just happened?
This American diplomat would be the first out of many to experience what is now commonly known as the Havana Syndrome.
What is Havana Syndrome?
From October 2016 through June 2018, 26 American Diplomats stationed in Havana suffered from a condition that left them with symptoms similar to those seen in brain trauma patients. Though the sound itself never lasted very long, the side effects did.
The primary symptoms for this condition are
- Loss of hearing
- Memory loss
- Sensitivity to light
Before experiencing the side effects, nearly all of these American diplomats claim to have heard the same unexplained sound like the CIA operative before them. Some described it as metal scraping against metal, while others recalled an intense pressure in their skull. Some victims reported hearing no strange sound at all yet still suffered from the same subsequent side effects. The common denominator between these people: they were all American diplomats stationed in or near Havana, Cuba. Some affected individuals we not even from the U.S. at all – at least 14 staff members at the Canadian embassy reported experiencing the same symptoms.
However, to date, Havana syndrome has affected over 130 people. Some individuals even reported experiencing symptoms while on U.S. soil.
Some after-effects of Havana syndrome have reportedly lingered for years, and they include:
- Recurrent vertigo
- Issues with distant vision
What causes Havana Syndrome?
Experts had initially believed the cause of Havana syndrome was accidental exposure to a toxic chemical, drug, or pesticide. However, when tested, there was no trace of any agents found in affected people or their places of residency.
The most likely cause of Havana syndrome is a type of device that emits microwave or ultrasonic energy. Exposure to such radiofrequency energy may create microbubbles in the fluid inside an individual’s ear. As these microbubbles travel through the blood and towards the brain, they could form small air emboli, resulting in cell damage similar to decompression sickness.
Some experts believe Havana syndrome to be the result of mass psychogenic illness, a phenomenon where a group of individuals gets ill at the same time with no apparent cause. This condition is otherwise known as mass hysteria. Studies conducted in the past show that overwhelming fear of getting sick may lead to actual visual symptoms.
Another likely and common cause is an appliance such as a microwave.
Though painful, debilitating, and disorienting, Havana syndrome is not fatal.
Federal investigators continue to research cases and attempt to figure out the causes behind them.
Treatment and Cure
Management of this disease mainly consists of alternative medicine practices such as meditation, breathing exercises, art therapy, and acupuncture. Rehabilitation programs consist of specific neurological activities administered during 1-hour sessions. Despite being somewhat successful, this method still requires additional research and testing.
Though initially only affecting individuals in Havana and Cuba (hence the name), this syndrome has affected people in China, Russia, Georgia, Australia, Colombia, and Poland.