Is Havana Syndrome Real? This is what history can tell us

By Paul Rogers

In 2016, CIA agents in Havana, Cuba, suffered unexplained health problems. They reported a persistent piercing sound followed by symptoms such as headache, nausea, dizziness, difficulty concentrating and memory loss. Was it a new condition? Or was it the latest incidence of the age-old phenomenon of mass psychogenic illness, formerly called mass hysteria?

Since 2016, hundreds of incidents of what is now called the “Havana syndrome” have been recorded by US intelligence and foreign service personnel on a growing list of global locations, including Russia and China. Because most of them worked in hotbeds of espionage, surrounded by traditional American adversaries, many in the US government and the media soon began to suspect foul play.

Others are skeptical and theorize that massive psychogenic illness (MPI) is really behind Havana syndrome. “Mass hysteria is an outbreak of physical illness in a group that appears to have an organic or physiological cause, but in fact stems from psychological causes, often out of fear,” says Gary Small, MD, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA.

The question is far from resolved. But MPI is not a new phenomenon; examples crop up in history. And while symptoms, patients and locations differ, some trends hold out: These diseases are often born of stress and spread like wildfire among tight-knit social networks. No two “epidemics” are exactly alike, but history can shed some light on the current murky situation: If Havana syndrome is a different MPI, how does it compare to past MPIs? Can historical cases of mass psychogenic illness contribute to a better understanding of this elusive medical conundrum?

Dancing Mania, 1518

MPI has been recognized since the Middle Ages. Dance mania was first reported in 7th century Europe and reappeared on that continent until the 17th century, made up of huge crowds that sometimes danced erratically for days at a time. A notable outbreak in 1518 began with the feverish howl of a lone woman on the streets of Strasbourg in present-day France. Theories about why groups of up to 400 people followed suit include stress-induced psychosis due to widespread disease and famine in the region.

Salem Witch Trials, 1692

The infamous Salem, MA, witch trials of 1692-1693 were a response to countless girls having bizarre, unexplained attacks. The cause of these convulsions and their interpretation as evidence of witchcraft is still debated. But collective tension from recent epidemics and post-traumatic stress disorder from the ongoing King William’s War, of which many of the girls affected were refugees, are cited as factors.

“You tend to see patterns,” says Small. “The people affected are often in isolated situations. There is a kind of stress that the group is experiencing with no way to resolve it.”

Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, 1962

The 1962 Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic began at a mission-run girls’ boarding school in Kashasha, Tanzania. Starting with three students, laughter spread through the school for several days, forcing its closure. The epidemic then spread to a village where several students had returned.

Boston School Play Incident, 1979

Small co-authored an investigation into a 1979 incident at a Boston elementary school when an influential boy became dizzy during a play at the end of the year, fell and bled profusely. This caused psychogenic reactions, including dizziness, hyperventilation and abdominal pain in a third of the students.

“There are a number of psychological stressors among those children, let alone just the performance anxiety they experience,” said Small, whose findings suggested a link between childhood loss, such as parental divorce or family death, and susceptibility to MPI. .

West Bank Fainting Epidemic, 1983

In 1983, 943 Palestinian girls and some Israeli female soldiers in the occupied West Bank were struck by mass fainting and nausea. Israel and Palestine made charges of chemical warfare, but eventually a local health official concluded that while the first 20% of cases were likely caused by an unidentified gas, the rest were essentially psychosomatic, according to Time magazine.

Santa Monica Disease, 1989

A UCLA investigation into a 1989 incident in which 247 student performers, most of them women, became seriously ill in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium similarly noted that children who saw a friend get sick were most likely to have symptoms. which were thus transmitted via social media. networking.

Leg Pain Incident in Mexico City, 2006

Hundreds of girls at a boarding school near Mexico City had unexplained leg pain, nausea and fever from 2006-2007. It was a closed community, students were not allowed access to television or radio. The resulting almost familial ties between them may have contributed to what psychiatrist Nashyiela Loa Zavala, who investigated the case, has called MPI’s “audiovisual contamination”.

How Havana Syndrome Relates

There are similarities between at least some cases of Havana syndrome and historical MPI outbreaks. MPI usually starts with a small, cohesive group of people of higher status, in a stressful situation, and then expands.

“The involvement of four [CIA agents] of the same station is a defining feature of mass psychogenic illnesses, which are known to follow social networks,” says New Zealand-based medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew, PhD.

Most cases of Havana syndrome involve staff isolated far from home in overseas embassies, not unlike the boarding school students implicated in many MPI outbreaks. They are linked by a stressful work environment, under constant surveillance, and likely aware of Russia’s alleged past use of microwave broadcasts to disrupt US intelligence. But for reasons of national security, they are usually unable to share related concerns with family or “civil” friends.

Some of the symptoms previously attributed to MPI, including headache, dizziness, and nausea, have been linked to Havana syndrome. Bartholomew suggested that “reframing” these common complaints by those affected to reflect what doctors and government agencies are telling them could contribute to the phenomenon. In other words, people can experience generic symptoms common with MPI and prone to sinister explanations — without any evidence for it.

Outbreaks of Havana syndrome are sometimes thousands of miles apart, which ostensibly eliminates audiovisual contamination. But the internet has redefined the concept of “community” to now transcend geographic proximity. Social media and online news have no doubt made US diplomats and intelligence officers well aware of graphic descriptions of Havana syndrome symptoms from peers around the world, some of whom would have been personally known from past reports.

However, Havana syndrome does not meet all the usual MPI criteria. Small noted “a preponderance of symptoms” [of MPI] in girls or women compared to boys or men.” Indeed, MPI affects young girls disproportionately more than any other demographic. Still, most cases of Havana syndrome are middle-aged men.

There is no consensus on the cause of Havana syndrome. Theories range from the mating call of crickets to a sound weapon. Some experts argue that early cases of Havana syndrome provide unequivocal evidence of neurological damage consistent with exposure to microwave radiation. Still, in at least some cases, they remain open to contributing psychosocial factors.

“We found [microwave radiation] to be the most plausible in explaining a subset of cases, not all cases,” said David Relman, MD, a microbiologist at Stanford University who led the National Academy of Sciences’ study of Havana syndrome. Relman said this subgroup was made up of staff from the US embassy in Cuba and from the US consulate in Guangzhou, China, the second location to report symptoms.

James Giordano, PhD, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University and a consultant to the Pentagon, said the original cases in the Havana embassy had “objective features — clinically identifiable, objectifiable, and valid and evidential signs — indicative of some form of neurological trauma or insult.” But he noted that only a fraction of global incidents to date have been verified as meeting the full, objective clinical criteria for the type of anomalous health incident known as Havana syndrome.

After 5 years, hundreds of cases on multiple continents, and continuous, inconclusive research, there may never be a definitive answer as to whether Havana syndrome is physical or psychogenic. But history can bring more clarity than Cold War espionage. Havana syndrome has some major differences from past MPI epidemics, but in many ways it’s more similar than not — and paranoia in the US intelligence community would hardly be unprecedented.

Paul Rogers is a British-born journalist living in Los Angeles. A graduate of the School of African and Asian Studies at the University of Sussex, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, LA Weekly and many others.

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