A CIA officer who traveled to India recently reported Havana syndrome symptoms. (Representational)
A Central Intelligence Agency official who accompanied CIA Director William Burns to India earlier this month suffered symptoms consistent with the so-called Havana Syndrome, a mysterious neurological illness that has struck American diplomats and spies in many parts of the world, multiple media reports said on Tuesday. The unidentified official was immediately tested for the weird brain symptoms and is receiving medical treatment. As many as 200 US officials and their family members have reported symptoms of the illness, which include migraines, nausea, memory lapses, and dizziness. American officials deputed at the US embassy in Cuba first reported the symptoms in 2016.
What is Havana Syndrome?
It's a mysterious illness that may result in migraines, nausea, memory lapses, vertigo, dizziness and intense headaches. Some victims describe it as being hit by an invisible blast wave. Doctors, scientists, intelligence agencies, and government officials have all been trying to investigate the reasons that cause Havana Syndrome. In the absence of a definite answer, rumours and theories swirl. Some believe it's intentional and involves an adversary, others wonder if it is a new and secret form of surveillance. Usually, victims report, it all starts with a sound, a sort of noise that they find difficult to describe, like “buzzing”, “grinding metal” and “piercing squeals”.
A Reuters report said the US National Academy of Sciences thinks the most plausible theory is that “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy” causes the syndrome. But hard evidence to say anything conclusively is still elusive.
The cases and origin
These strange symptoms first came into public view when diplomats and other officials at the US embassy in Cuba reported feeling unusual physical sensations and hearing high- and low-pitched sounds. Diplomatic ties between the US and Cuba improved in 2015 after decades of hostility. Within two years, however, the US embassy had to be shut down as staffers were recalled owing to their health concerns.
Since then, US government employees have reported similar symptoms in China and the Washington, DC area. The medical mystery gets its name from the Cuban capital where US officials first reported these neurological symptoms. Cuba has said it has no knowledge of the illness.
Last month, US Vice President Kamala Harris had to delay her travel plans from Singapore to Vietnam for three hours after the US embassy in Hanoi reported a “possible anomalous health incident”. Reports later said it was consistent with the Havana Syndrome. Some US diplomats had to be moved out of Vietnam.
How long do the symptoms stay?
Most people who reported these symptoms recovered after getting medical attention, meaning the illness was temporary. But some of those affected by it involved CIA officials, so information about them was unlikely to be made public. There is a possibility that some may have suffered from Havana Syndrome for a longer time than others.
What's been America's response?
Top US officials have said they can't rule out the possibility that the syndrome is intentionally caused. CIA Director Burns has said that he has redoubled the intelligence agency's efforts to uncover the cause of the illness, which included assigning a senior officer, who once led the hunt for Osama bin Laden, to lead the investigation.
In August, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken wrote to reassure American diplomats alarmed by the mysterious illness that the US was making all efforts to probe the unexplained health incidents but also acknowledged that the government does not know why it is happening or how it can be stopped.