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What Is Havana Syndrome? Symptoms & Causes

what is Havana syndrome
What is Havana syndrome? Learn about the symptoms, potential causes, and treatment of this mysterious illness

Havana syndrome is a series of debilitating symptoms that first affected U.S. intelligence officers and embassy staffers stationed in Havana, Cuba, in late 2016. In the following year, American diplomats in different parts of the world reported similar symptoms. 

Researchers investigating the condition have stated that Havana syndrome, which was initially dismissed as mass hysteria or a reaction caused by psychosomatic causes such as stress, may be a result of microwave weaponry. Symptoms are similar to those of a concussion or mild head injury and have mostly been reported by diplomats, intelligence officers, military personnel, and their family members deployed on foreign soil. 

To date, Havana syndrome has affected more than 130 people, with a few officials having reported symptoms while they were on U.S soil. Symptoms are not only distressing but aftereffects also seem to linger for a long time.

What are the symptoms of Havana syndrome?

In late 2016, deployed diplomats heard a loud piercing sound at night and felt intense pressure in the face. Pain, nausea, and dizziness followed. While the sound stopped eventually, some people complained of continued pain and dizziness along with trouble concentrating. The symptoms were debilitating enough to interfere with their work during the period of deployment.

In the years that followed, many intelligence officers and military personnel reported symptoms such as confusion, nausea, and disorientation that typically started with a sudden onset of pain and pressure in the head and ears. They reported other symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, brain fog, memory problems, light sensitivity, and sleep-related complaints (drowsiness and insomnia).

The long-term sequelae of Havana syndrome include:

Experts state that overall symptoms are akin to those reported by individuals with head injuries, although none of the personnel reported a blow to the head or related preexisting health conditions.

What could be the cause of Havana syndrome?

Initially, experts suspected that Havana syndrome may be caused by either accidental or deliberate exposure to a toxic chemical, pesticide, or drug. No traces of such agents, however, were found in affected people or their homes. 

The most likely cause of Havana syndrome is assumed to be some type of a mechanical device that emits ultrasonic or microwave energy:

  • Such radiofrequency energy exposure through highly specialized bioweaponry could potentially create microbubbles in the fluid inside a person’s ear. When those bubbles travel through the blood into the brain, they can cause minute air emboli that result in cell damage, similar to decompression sickness (disorder that deep-sea divers develop if they surface too quickly), 
  • Another explanation is that symptoms may be due to direct penetration of radiofrequency waves into the skull, which disrupts electrical and chemical activity in the brain and rewires certain neural pathways. This rewiring may be the reason that the symptoms seem profound and have long-lasting sequelae.

Although debilitating, Havana syndrome is not fatal, and all afflicted individuals are still alive.


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How is Havana syndrome treated?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of affected individuals compared with those of healthy individuals show differences in the white matter (the paler tissue of the brain and spinal cord that mainly contains bundles of myelinated nerve fibers) structure. This supports the hypothesis that Havana syndrome is a disorder involving non-specific and unfathomable changes in brain activity and structure.

The management of the disease consists of alternative medicine modalities such as art therapy, meditation, breathing exercises, and acupuncture

A rehabilitation program consisting of specific neurological exercises administered in 1-hour sessions has been partially successful but needs further research. Each session consists of cognitive exercises comprising repetitive complex movements of the upper and lower limbs, balance exercises, and orthoptic exercises.

What is the HAVANA Act?

On July 6, 2021, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation to support American public servants who have incurred brain injuries from possible directed energy attacks or Havana syndrome, called the HAVANA (Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks) Act.

The Act, which was authorized by Senator Susan Collins along with the Intelligence Committee, plans to lend financial support to individuals who have suffered from Havana syndrome. Both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and State Department will create regulations detailing fair and equitable criteria for paying the victims.

The HAVANA Act is an endeavor by the U.S. government to acknowledge the hardships of afflicted U.S. public officers, providing financial aid and legislative changes to help cope with the condition.

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