By Paul Rogers
In 2016, CIA officers successful Havana, Cuba, started having unexplained wellness issues. They reported a persistent piercing sound followed by symptoms including headaches, nausea, vertigo, problem concentrating, and representation loss. Was it a caller condition? Or was it nan latest incidence of nan centuries-old arena of wide psychogenic illness, formerly called wide hysteria?
Since 2016, hundreds of incidents of what is now dubbed “Havana syndrome” person been recorded by U.S. intelligence and Foreign Service unit successful a increasing database of world locations, including Russia and China. As astir were moving successful hotbeds of espionage, surrounded by accepted U.S adversaries, galore successful nan American authorities and media soon began to fishy foul play.
Others are skeptical, theorizing that wide psychogenic unwellness (MPI) is really down Havana syndrome. “Mass hysteria is an outbreak of a beingness unwellness successful a group that appears to person an integrated aliases physiological cause, but really stems from psychological causes, often from anxiety,” says Gary Small, MD, professor of psychiatry astatine UCLA.
The mobility is acold from settled. But MPI is not a caller phenomenon; examples popular up passim history. And while nan symptoms, patients, and locations differ, immoderate trends clasp steady: these illnesses are often calved of stress, and they dispersed for illustration wildfire among adjacent societal networks. No 2 “epidemics” are precisely alike, but history whitethorn shed immoderate ray connected nan coming murky situation: If Havana syndrome is different MPI, really does it comparison to MPIs successful nan past? Can humanities instances of wide psychogenic unwellness lend to a amended knowing of this elusive aesculapian enigma?
MPI has been recognized since nan Middle Ages. Dancing mania was first reported successful 7th-century Europe and reappeared crossed that continent until nan 17th century, comprising immense crowds dancing erratically for sometimes days astatine a time. A notable 1518 outbreak began pinch nan feverish cavorting of a lone female successful nan streets of Strasbourg successful modern-day France. Theories arsenic to why groups of up to 400 group followed suit see stress-induced psychosis resulting from wide illness and famine successful nan region.
The infamous Salem, MA, witch tests of 1692-1693 were a consequence to galore girls having outlandish, inexplicable fits. The origin of these convulsions and their mentation arsenic grounds of witchcraft are still debated. But corporate hostility resulting from caller epidemics and posttraumatic accent upset from nan ongoing King William’s War, from which galore of nan affected girls were refugees, person been cited arsenic factors.
“You thin to spot patterns,” says Small. “People affected often are successful isolated situations. There’s immoderate benignant of accent that nan group is experiencing without immoderate intends of resolving it.”
The 1962 Tanganyika laughter pandemic began astatine a mission-run girls’ boarding schoolhouse successful Kashasha, Tanzania. Starting pinch 3 students, fits of laughter lasting up to respective days dispersed passim nan school, forcing its closure. The pandemic past dispersed to a colony to which respective students had returned.
Small co-authored a study of a 1979 incident astatine a Boston simple schoolhouse when, while performing successful an end-of-year play, an influential boy became dizzy and fell, bleeding profusely. This triggered psychogenic responses including dizziness, hyperventilation, and abdominal symptom successful one-third of nan student body.
“There are a number of psychological stressors among those kids, fto unsocial conscionable nan capacity worry they’re experiencing,” says Small, whose findings suggested a narration betwixt puerility loss, specified arsenic parental divorcement aliases family death, and susceptibility to MPI.
In 1983, an outbreak of wide fainting and nausea affected 943 Palestinian girls and a fewer female Israeli soldiers successful nan occupied West Bank. Israel and Palestine traded allegations of chemic warfare, but yet a section wellness charismatic concluded that while nan first 20% of cases were astir apt caused by an unidentified gas, nan remainder were fundamentally psychosomatic, according to Time magazine.
A UCLA investigation of a 1989 incident successful which 247 student performers, astir of them female, became violently sick astatine Santa Monica Civic Auditorium likewise noted that children who saw a friend go sick were nan astir apt to create symptoms, which were frankincense transmitted done societal networks.
Hundreds of girls astatine a boarding schoolhouse adjacent Mexico City knowledgeable unexplained limb pain, nausea, and fever during 2006-2007. It was a closed community, pinch students denied entree to tv aliases radio. The resulting almost familial bonds betwixt them whitethorn person contributed to what psychiatrist Nashyiela Loa Zavala, who investigated nan case, has termed nan “audiovisual contagion” of MPI.
Commonalities beryllium betwixt astatine slightest immoderate Havana syndrome cases and humanities MPI outbreaks. MPI usually originates among a small, cohesive group of group of higher status, successful a stressful situation, and past spreads.
“The engagement of 4 [CIA agents] from nan aforesaid position is simply a defining characteristic of wide psychogenic illness, which is known to travel societal networks,” says New Zealand-based aesculapian sociologist Robert Bartholomew, PhD.
Most Havana syndrome cases are unit isolated acold from location successful overseas embassies, not dissimilar nan boarding students progressive successful galore MPI outbreaks. They are bonded by a stressful activity environment, nether changeless surveillance, and apt cognizant of Russia’s alleged anterior usage of microwave transmissions to disrupt U.S. intelligence. Yet for reasons of nationalist security, they are typically incapable to stock related anxieties pinch family aliases “civilian” friends.
Some symptoms antecedently attributed to MPI, including headache, dizziness, and nausea, person been associated pinch Havana syndrome. Bartholomew suggested that “reframing” of these communal complaints by those affected, to bespeak what doctors and authorities authorities are telling them, could lend to nan phenomenon. In different words, group mightiness beryllium experiencing generic symptoms communal successful MPI and beryllium susceptible to sinister explanations -- without immoderate grounds for them.
Havana syndrome outbreaks are separated by sometimes thousands of miles, which ostensibly eliminates audiovisual contagion. But nan net has redefined nan conception of “community” to now transcend geographical proximity. Social media and online news undoubtedly made U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers good alert of schematic descriptions of Havana syndrome symptoms from peers astir nan world, immoderate of whom would beryllium personally known to them from anterior postings.
However, Havana syndrome does not meet each communal MPI criteria. Small noted “a preponderance of symptoms [of MPI] successful girls aliases women compared pinch boys aliases men.” Indeed, MPI disproportionately affects young girls much than immoderate different demographic. Yet nan mostly of Havana syndrome cases person been middle-aged men.
There is nary statement connected nan origin of Havana syndrome. Theories scope from nan mating telephone of crickets to a sonic weapon. Some experts support that early cases of Havana syndrome coming unambiguous grounds of neurological harm accordant pinch vulnerability to microwave radiation. Yet they stay unfastened to contributing psychosocial factors successful astatine slightest immoderate instances.
“We recovered [microwave radiation] to beryllium astir plausible successful explaining a subset of nan cases, not each cases,” says David Relman, MD, a Stanford University microbiologist who headed nan National Academy of Sciences study of Havana syndrome. Relman said that this subset comprised unit of nan American embassy successful Cuba and astatine nan U.S. consulate successful Guangzhou, China, which was nan 2nd location to study symptoms.
James Giordano, PhD, professor of neurology astatine Georgetown University and advisor to nan Pentagon, said that nan original cases astatine nan Havana embassy “had nonsubjective features -- clinically relatable, objectifiable, and valid and evidentiary signs -- that were suggestive of immoderate shape of neurological trauma aliases insult.” But he noted that only a fraction of nan worldwide incidents to day person been verified arsenic gathering nan full, nonsubjective objective criteria for nan type of anomalous wellness incident known arsenic Havana syndrome.
After 5 years, hundreds of cases connected aggregate continents, and continuous, inconclusive investigation, location whitethorn ne'er beryllium a definitive reply to whether Havana syndrome is beingness aliases psychogenic. But history whitethorn bring much clarity than Cold-War-era spycraft. Havana syndrome has immoderate awesome differences from MPI epidemics of nan past, but successful galore ways it’s much akin than not -- and paranoia successful nan American intelligence organization would hardly beryllium unprecedented.
Paul Rogers is simply a British-born journalist based successful Los Angeles. A postgraduate of nan School of African and Asian Studies astatine nan University of Sussex, his activity has appeared successful nan Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, LA Weekly, and galore others.