The so-called Havana Syndrome was caused by emotional trauma and fear rather than something new and sinister, according to the latest take on an intriguing saga.
A sociologist and a specialist in neurodegenerative diseases say the US and Canadian diplomats who recently reported a mystery illness while stationed in Cuba were participants in a continuation of the Cold War, living in a hostile foreign country where they were under constant surveillance.
In paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Robert Bartholomew and Robert Baloh argue that at the time embassy staff were living in a cauldron of stress and uncertainty, amid rumours of an enigmatic sonic weapon.
“What is the more likely, that the diplomats were the target of a mysterious new weapon for which there is no concrete evidence, or they were suffering from psychogenic symptoms generated by stress? The evidence overwhelmingly points to the latter,” they write.
Dozens of US and Canadian diplomatic staff reported concussion-like symptoms – including headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue – between late 2016 and June 2018.
These were described as “medically confirmed symptoms” by the US State Department, and government physicians suspected the involvement of a sonic device. Studies on the patients, however, have been inconclusive and contradictory.
There has been no shortage of opinions.
Earlier this year, for example, US doctors reported that the brains of embassy staff were significantly different to those of the other participants in a study, and more recently Israeli researchers suggested pesticides may be to blame, at least in the case of the Canadians.
Bartholomew, a medical sociologist based in New Zealand, and Baloh, Director of the Neurotology Laboratory at the UCLA Medical Centre in the US, beg to differ, however.
Bartholomew, the paper’s lead author, concludes that Havana Syndrome is more akin to shell shock, with the symptoms paralleling those associated with war trauma.
“A characteristic feature of combat syndromes over the past century is the appearance of an array of neurological complaints from an overstimulated nervous system that are commonly misdiagnosed as concussions and brain damage”, he writes.
He adds: “A signature feature of shell shock was concussion-like symptoms. Like today, their appearance initially baffled physicians until a more careful review of the data determined that what they were seeing was an epidemic of psychogenic illness.
“In fact, some of the descriptions from 100 years ago are virtually identical, right down to the use of the phrase ‘concussion-like symptoms’.”
The authors argue that “four separate studies” have promoted “exotic explanations” not supported by facts.
“Our conclusions are grounded in the prosaic and known science,” the write. “There is no need to resort to exotic explanations. Claims that the patients were suffering from brain and auditory damage are not borne out by the data.”
The jury is out.
Nick Carne is editor of Cosmos digital and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
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