Havana syndrome mysteries slowly revealed

Tourists ride classic convertible cars on the Malecon beside the United States Embassy in Havana, Cuba. The Biden administration faces increasing pressure to respond to a sharply growing number of reported injuries suffered by diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel that some suspect are caused by devices that emit waves of energy that disrupt brain function. The problem has been labeled the “Havana Syndrome,” because the first cases affected personnel in 2016 at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. AP Photo/Desmond Boylan, File

The symptoms of Havana syndrome—ringing ears, headaches, and fatigue—are fairly common. The exact source of the illness is still unknown. And extensive investigations seeking answers have resulted in confusing and seemingly inconsistent reports.

But Havana syndrome sufferers—so named because the first cases were reported by Central Intelligence Agency employees working at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba—can take comfort in a new report released Wednesday that says the syndrome could be the result of pulsed electromagnetic energy directed via focused radio waves.

More importantly for victims, the report pushes back on an argument made by some scientists that the syndrome is actually a mass psychogenic illness, or what used to be called mass hysteria.

Edward Barr and Nicole Laffan, assistant clinical professor at Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Courtesy Photo and Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

“Regardless of whether any government agency has been able to come up with proof of what caused this, the fact is that we have pockets of individuals in the same locations with the same symptoms,” says Nicole Laffan, assistant clinical professor at Northeastern.

As an audiologist, Laffan treats many of the symptoms that those with Havana syndrome complain of, such as tinnitus, pain in either or both ears, feelings of pressure or vibrations in the head, and vertigo. More than 1,000 U.S. employees in the intelligence community—which includes the CIA, the FBI, and the U.S. State Department—have complained of the symptoms since it was first reported in 2016.

“This illness is invisible, and it can be so frustrating for patients because they are dealing with symptoms that no one can see,” says Laffan. “It’s like a hidden disorder.”

The reporting panel, commissioned by President Joe Biden last October, is made up of intelligence officials, government scientists, and private health experts. They had access to classified reports and interviewed at least 20 people suffering with the syndrome. They reported Wednesday that some of the injuries that Havana syndrome patients suffered couldn’t be caused by stress or psychosomatic reactions.

“Psychosocial factors alone cannot account for the core characteristics, although they may cause some other incidents or contribute to long-term symptoms,” reads the report.

The findings come on the heels of a CIA interim report declaring that the attacks are unlikely to have been caused by Russia or another foreign adversary.

“The first impulse from the intelligence community was to look at foreign actors for the cause of Havana syndrome. Given the first reported incidents were in Cuba in 2016 and China in 2017, this makes sense. “Those nations are difficult operational environments for the US Intelligence Community to operate,” says Edward Barr, a former CIA officer who oversaw intelligence operations in 27 countries.

Barr, a lecturer who teaches for Northeastern’s strategic analysis and intelligence masters degree, said ruling out foreign actors is another step towards discovering the actual source.

“The CIA report could be due diligence. They’re saying, ‘We’re supposed to determine if it was an attack from a foreign actor, and it’s not. But we’re not done yet,’” says Barr.

Meanwhile, victims dealing with the sometimes-debilitating symptoms can seek relief, says Laffan. Those with tinnitus, for example, report less frequent symptoms after spending time in a sound booth matching the exact frequency of the ringing or sound they hear.

“One of the things we find about tinnitus is that stress always exacerbates it, so this therapy can often change a patient’s perspective and remove a lot of the fear surrounding the symptoms,” says Laffan. Finding the right amplification for those suffering hearing loss is also important.

“Those individuals, when they’re wearing their hearing aids, almost always report that they don’t notice the tinnitus anymore,” says Laffan.

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