‘Mass hysteria’ possible cause of illness among US diplomats in Cuba
Senior neurologists have said that a spate of mysterious ailments among US diplomats in Cuba – which has caused a diplomatic rift between the two countries – could have been caused by a form of “mass hysteria” rather than sonic attacks.
The unexplained incidents have led the US to withdraw most of its embassy staff from Havana and expel most Cuban diplomats from Washington.
The neurologists who talked to the Guardian cautioned that no proper diagnosis was possible without far more information and access to the 22 US victims, who have suffered a range of symptoms including hearing loss, tinnitus, headaches and dizziness.
But US and Cuban investigations have produced no evidence of any weapon, and the neurologists say the possibility of “functional disorder”– due to a problem in the functioning of the nervous system, rather than a disease – should be considered.
The state department has described the incidents as “attacks”, saying they began at the end of last year, with the last recorded incident in August.
“From an objective point of view it’s more like mass hysteria than anything else,” said Mark Hallett, president of the International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology.
“Mass hysteria” is the popular term for outbreaks among groups of people that are partly or wholly psychosomatic, but Hallett stressed there should be no blame attached to sufferers: “Psychosomatic disease is a disease like anything else. It shouldn’t be stigmatised. It’s important to point out that symptoms like this are not voluntary. They are not a sign of weakness in an individual’s personality.”
Hallett said it was more common for such disorders to affect smaller groups of people, often in families, but he added that it was feasible for larger numbers of individuals to be affected, especially when they were working closely together in a tense and hostile environment.
“There are a very large number of individuals that have relatively vague complaints ... There has been an exploration of possible causes for this and nothing has been found, and the notion of some sonic beam is relatively nonsensical.
“If it is mass hysteria that would clarify all the mystery – and presumably normalise US-Cuban relations again.”
No evidence has been found of any kind of device that could have been used in an attack, and many acoustics experts have said that it is highly unlikely that the range of symptoms reported could have been caused by any kind of sonic weapon.
The US has not directly blamed the Cuban government but said it had failed in its obligation to protect foreign diplomats on its territory. Havana has denied conducting any form of attack, and has offered its cooperation in discovering the cause of the symptoms.
“I don’t think the Cuban government is behind it,” said Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s foreign policy adviser, who was involved in negotiating that administration’s rapprochement with Havana.
“First, these things apparently started in December ... At the same time the attacks were starting the Cuban government was frantically concluding agreements with us, signing business deals ... The notion that at the same time as doing that, they would initiate something that is so obviously designed to blow up the relationship doesn’t make any sense.”
Asked about the possibility of functional disorders, the US state department said: “We have no definitive answers on the cause or the source of the attacks on US diplomats in Cuba, and an aggressive investigation continues. We do not want to get ahead of that investigation.”
Most US diplomats have left the Havana embassy amid claims of a sonic attack