130. The Mystery Illness Affecting Western Diplomats!: What is Havana Syndrome?


American diplomats and government officials around the world have been falling ill with a mysterious illness known as Havana syndrome. What are the symptoms? What is it caused by? Let’s talk about it on today’s episode of Thinking in English!!



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Vocabulary List

Fatigue (n) – extreme tiredness

She was suffering from fatigue

Intelligence (n) – a group of people who collect and deal with secret information about the governments of other countries

They received intelligence reports that the President was being targeted by protestors. 

To restore (v) – to return something to an earlier good condition

The old paintings have been carefully restored to their original conditions

Anomalous (adj) – different from what is usual, or not in agreement with something else and therefore not satisfactory

You can’t prepare in advance for anomalous events that could ruin your plans, like the pandemic.

Ailment (n) – an illness

You should treat minor ailments yourself at home

To disorientate (v) – to make someone confused about where they are and where they are going

I was disorientated after being woken up unexpectedly at 4am 

Underlying (adj) – real but not immediately obvious 

We need to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and suffering 

Psychogenic (adj) – originating in the mind or in mental or emotional conflict

Although doctors suggest the illness may be psychogenic, the government believes it has a physical cause


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What is Havana Syndrome

In Cuba, 2016, American CIA officers began to suffer from a mysterious illness. Often beginning with hearing a “buzzing” or “piercing” sound, the agents went on to experience a variety of different symptoms: intense pressure in their skulls; the feeling of heat; dizziness; memory loss; anxiety; and fatigue. Overall, around twenty-six officers and some of their family members would end up reporting such symptoms. 

As they worked for the CIA, and were part of the US’s intelligence network, these cases were initially kept secret. Soon, however, other diplomats, military officials and embassy staff in Cuba were also suffering from the mystery “Havana syndrome.” 

At first the Cuban government, or perhaps individuals within the government, were thought to be responsible. The US and Cuba were enemies for decades before diplomatic relations were restored in 2015. With the arrival of official US diplomats in Cuba’s capital, Cuban security forces were naturally nervous about the military and spies working in the US embassy. Therefore, the Americans suspected Cubans of using some kind of advanced weapon or poison. 

United States Embassy in Havana, May 2021
United States Embassy in Havana, May 2021/Getty Images

Then American and Canadian diplomats, government personnel, and intelligence officers began to experience the strange symptoms in other parts of the world. The US State Department evacuated employees and officials from the Chinese city of Guangzhou in 2018 due to cases of “Havana syndrome.” In the following months, people working in US embassies in Poland, Georgia, Russia, and Taiwan all suffered from symptoms. 

In 2021, there were even more cases. In October last year two American citizens were affected in Colombia. A CIA intelligence officer in Serbia was evacuated back to the US with serious injuries caused by symptoms similar to “Havana syndrome.” US officials in Geneva and Paris reported cases, and an investigation has been launched in Vienna, Austria. Vice President Kamala Harris had to delay her trip to Vietnam due to an “anomalous health incident” in Hanoi, and another CIA agent in India required medical attention.

What Causes Havana Syndrome?

A Sonic Weapon?

So what is this mysterious illness? Is it real? Or is it mental? Well, the symptoms are certainly real. As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, people suffering from “Havana syndrome” have suffered a variety of ailments: from hearing strange sounds and headaches, to memory and hearing loss. After the initial cases in Havana, Cuba, brain scans revealed major tissue damage – similar to being hit by a car or caught in an explosion. 

The first theories suggested the use of a sonic weapon. The word sonic refers to sound, so sonic weapons are a form of technology that can use sound to injure victims. At extremely high levels, sound can be used to cause pain and disorientate people, while less powerful sonic weapons can cause discomfort and nausea. Sonic weapons are currently used as a non-lethal weapon: for example by police forces controlling crowds; the Greek government trying to stop migrants entering the country; and ships to deter pirates. 

However, if Havana syndrome was caused by a sonic weapon more people would have reported hearing the sounds. Sound waves that are too large or small for humans to hear are unable to cause brain damage like that seen in Havana syndrome cases. So, if it is not caused by a sonic weapon, what is it caused by?

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Microwaves?

The next theory considered were microwaves. The US and Soviet Union were known to be experimenting with microwave technology during the cold war as forms of weapon or mind control. The US learnt of Soviet experiments with microwaves that caused frogs’ hearts to stop, and were worried (and perhaps intrigued) by the potential of the technology as a weapon. For 25 years, from the 1950s onwards, Soviet’s were constantly firing microwaves at the US embassy in Moscow (the Americans knew about it but didn’t tell their staff). US ambassador Walter Stoessel even suffered from symptoms including bleeding eyes. 

Professor James Lin, currently at the University of Illinois, conducted experiments on himself in the 1970s: he believed that when microwaves hit a person’s head, the energy is converted into pressure in the brain. And recent medical reports suggest that microwaves can have real and serious health effects. Both the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association have concluded that microwaves can alter brain functions without causing major damage. 

Mass Psychogenic Illness?

Not everyone is convinced by the microwave argument. Instead, a third possibility has been suggested: mass psychogenic illness. I apologise for the complicated term, but it refers to the situation when people in a group can feel the same symptoms without actually suffering from the same illness. For example, tests have shown that if you tell someone their food is rotten or undercooked, they will feel sick even if there is nothing wrong with it. 

There is an episode of the TV medical drama House I always remember: the doctors are travelling on a plane when a man falls sick. Quickly, other passengers fall sick and they worry there is an outbreak of a dangerous disease on the plane. Eventually, they discover the first man was suffering from an illness caused by scuba diving, and that all the other passengers who felt sick were suffering from a mass psychogenic illness. They really felt sick, but there was no physical cause. 

I know that was an overly dramatic and fake example, but these things can really happen. While there is no underlying disease or cause, the symptoms are real, physical, and dangerous. If we look back at Cuba in 2016, the situation at that time was highly stressful for the employees working in the US embassy. While a third of the people thought to be suffering with Havana syndrome reported hearing loss – only two failed hearing tests (and they had pre-existing ear problems).  And only three had changes in brain tissue – which is not actually that unusual.

Some doctors believe that the panic around Havana syndrome has caused relatively normal, every-day symptoms like headaches, tiredness, and dizziness to be seen as Havana syndrome. If the sufferers, health experts, and media all think of these symptoms as Havanna syndrome, it can make people extra-aware of any small illnesses or symptoms they suffer themselves. People wake up with headaches, fevers, fatigue, and anxiety all the time – but if you are expecting Havana syndrome you will think it is Havana syndrome.  

Moreover, there are some other curious problems with Havana syndrome. US officials are not the only people to report suffering from the illness. Canadian diplomats also reported it back in Havana in 2016. If it was an attack by another country, why did they target Canada? Why not any of the US’s other allies? What about the British? The UK secret services work very closely with the US, Russia has literally tried to assassinate people in the UK, and China is accused of having spies in the British government – so why have there been no British cases? 

How has the US government reacted to the Havana Syndrome?

After news of the first cases broke, then President Donald Trump directly and publicly blamed Cuba. As more cases spread around the world, a group of intelligence experts and scientists were given the job of finding out what kind of device is being used. And in December 2020, a report by the US National Academies of Sciences concluded that microwaves were responsible for at least some of the cases (but not all).

In October last year, President Joe Biden signed the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act, which gives medical and financial support to people suffering from Havana syndrome. His advisors are believed to suspect Russia is responsible – but there is no evidence. The government now gives official advice to people on how to avoid the syndrome – including physically running away from the place you are sitting or sleeping if you start to feel sick. Also, the CIA has now taken responsibility for finding the cause – with the man who found Osama bin Laden given the task! 

Final Thought

This episode has tried to introduce the puzzling and mysterious illness known as “Havana syndrome” which has been causing numerous problems for the US government and their diplomats. After first being reported in Havana Cuba five years ago, hundreds of intelligence agents and government officials have reportedly suffered from the syndrome. 

What is it caused by? The US believes it is caused by microwave weapons, while others suggest a psychological illness with real symptoms. If it is a weapon, who is responsible? Is it Cuba, Russia, China, or perhaps even the Americans themselves? Certainly, the US, Russia, and China have experimented with such weapons in the past. 

Ultimately, no one knows for sure the cause of Havana syndrome. One thing the US needs to be careful of, however, is to avoid politics overshadowing scientific fact. Whether it is caused by a special weapon, a psychogenic illness, or something different, the symptoms are real and affecting hundreds of American officials.

What do you think the Havana syndrome is? Is it caused by microwaves? Sonic weapons? A psychogenic illness? And who is responsible? What do you think? 


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