‘Mass hys­te­ria’ pos­si­ble cause of ill­ness among US diplo­mats in Cuba

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Ju­lian Borger Wash­ing­ton Philip Jaekl

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

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