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India reports the first case of Havana syndrome: Is this a mystery illness?

Earlier this month, a CIA officer visiting New Delhi reported symptoms similar to Havana syndrome. This is the first report of the mysterious illness in India. Reports on CNN and NYT said the US officer was part of CIA director William Burns’ delegation and received medical care in India. The development comes after US Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Vietnam was delayed when several US personnel reported Havana syndrome symptoms ahead of her trip. Since its first report in Cuba in late 2016, the mysterious neurological illness has afflicted American spies and diplomats in Russia, China, Austria and several other countries.

Diplomats and other personnel stationed in Cuba’s capital, Havana, reported feeling ill after hearing strange sounds and experiencing strange physical sensations in their hotel rooms late last year. The symptoms included headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness and sleep problems. Since then, this has come to be known as the Havana syndrome. More than 200 US officials and their families have reportedly experienced symptoms similar to this illness since 2016. Some even suffered from dizziness and fatigue for months. According to a study conducted by an American academic in 2019, diplomats who became ill exhibited ‘brain abnormalities’.

How is Havana syndrome caused?
Despite being first reported five years ago, doctors and scientists have not yet identified what causes Havana syndrome. Various theories have circulated since then, from psychological illness to some kind of sonic weapon. According to a report by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), microwave radiation is the ‘possible’ cause.

Stress-related? Or something else?
US diplomats experiencing such symptoms are said to be experiencing the stress of foreign missions, as argued by one section. The BBC reported that UCLA neurology professor Robert W Baloh called it a mass psychogenic (stress-related) condition. Baloh compared the situation to how people feel sick when they are told they have eaten tainted food, even if there was no problem with it.

As Baloh told BBC, such mass psychogenic illness is usually the result of some stressful underlying situation. The embassy employees in Cuba, particularly the first to be affected, were undoubtedly facing a stressful time, Baloh added. US embassy officials became ‘hyper-aware’ and ‘fearful’ as reports spread, and they mistook everyday symptoms like brain fog and dizziness for Havana syndrome.

Is Havana syndrome a result of a US study?
The National Academies of Sciences studied the symptoms of about 40 government employees as part of a study commissioned by the US State Department in December 2020. 19 experts examined four possible explanations for the symptoms of Havana syndrome – infection, chemicals, psychological factors, and microwave energy.

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According to the study, ‘directed pulsed radiofrequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism for explaining these cases’. The study acknowledged that ‘significant research’ had been conducted on microwave weapons in Russia and the USSR, without blaming any country. Moscow has denied any involvement in the ‘attacks’. Microwave weapons are a type of direct energy weapons that direct highly focused energy in the form of sonic, laser, or microwave energy at a target.

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