Havana syndrome-like symptoms are now gripping US diplomats in Vienna – Screen Shot
Deep Dives Level Up Newsletters Saved Articles Challenges

Havana syndrome-like symptoms are now gripping US diplomats in Vienna

“In October 2017, I started to get hives all over my body. Really bad hives. I woke up with headaches every day,” said Catherine Werner, a US trade officer who promoted American business from the US consulate in Guangzhou, China. In a segment run by CBS’ 60 minutes in 2019, Werner explained how her symptoms worsened to the point where she would wake up with nosebleeds while her dogs threw up blood. Although Werner assumed her symptoms were connected to China’s toxic smog, she didn’t realise their resemblance to what American officials in Havana have been suffering from since 2016.

What is Havana syndrome?

Initially referred to as ‘the Thing’ and ‘Immaculate Concussion’, Havana syndrome is used to define a set of medical symptoms reported by the American and Canadian embassy staff in Cuba dating back to late 2016. According to The Guardian, at least 16 US government employees suffered from a range of symptoms including headaches, dizziness, vomiting, bowel spasms, vertigo, permanent hearing loss and even brain damage.

Although the symptoms weren’t always the same, they typically started off with an unexplained onset of pain and pressure in the head and ears. WebMD noted how some people reported hearing a loud noise followed by nausea, dizziness, confusion and disorientation. “It usually happened in people’s homes and some say it altered the way they could move their bodies afterward.” The symptoms are therefore described as a “cognitive fog”—similar to experiencing a concussion without actually having one.

As a response, the US accused Cuba of carrying out “sonic attacks” before minimising their staff to a skeletal set at the embassy. These claims were strongly denied by Cuba, which led to an increased tension between the two nations. Starting late 2017, however, US diplomats in China started reporting symptoms similar to those in Cuba, as did undercover CIA agents working in other countries with partner agencies to counter Russian covert operations.

“For me it was November of 2017, when I started to feel lightheaded a lot,” said Mark Lenzi, a State Department security officer who worked in the US consulate in Guangzhou, alongside Werner. In the interview with CBS, Lenzi explained how he and his wife began experiencing the symptoms after hearing strange noises in their apartment.

“Picture holding a marble,” Lenzi said, explaining the sound. “Then, picture if you had like a six foot in diameter metal funnel. The sound that marble would make as it goes around and it progressively gets faster as it goes down towards the hole at the end.” Lenzi mentioned how the sound was unlike anything he has ever heard before. He also admitted to hearing the sound three to four times per day in the same spot. “Always over my son’s crib and always right before we would go to bed.”

Lenzi believes he was targeted due to the nature of his work, which involved the use of top secret equipment to analyse electronic threats to diplomatic missions. “This was a directed standoff attack against my apartment,” he said, labelling Havana syndrome as an “energy weapon” based on radio frequency energy in the microwave range. The official currently wears prescribed glasses with light sensitivity being one of the persistent symptoms.

A covert weapon in an ‘acoustic’ war

Ever since the incidents began in Cuba, US federal investigators have been struggling to determine the root cause of the mysterious illness. In 2019, a US academic study found “brain abnormalities” in the diplomats who had fallen ill, but Cuba quickly dismissed the report. As of 2021, there have been cases reported worldwide with a Senate committee in April concluding the number of suspected cases to be on a rise.

In April 2021, CNN reported on two separate incidents that occurred near the White House affecting National Security Council staffers. The following month witnessed the Pentagon allegedly drafting a memo to the entire US military and civilian workforce—asking personnel to report any so-called “anomalous health symptoms” that might indicate they have been victims of the Havana syndrome. According to the latest CNN report, no final decision has been made on whether to issue the memo, but the fact it’s being considered “underscores the growing concern at the Pentagon’s senior levels that they need to gather more information on the illness.”

More than 20 officials have reported symptoms similar to Havana syndrome ever since President Joe Biden took office in January. The US government is currently investigating a series of health incidents in the Austrian capital Vienna involving its diplomats and other administration staff.

“We take these reports very seriously and, according to our role as the host state, are working with the US authorities on a joint solution,” the Federal Ministry of European and International Affairs said on 17 July 2021. “The security of diplomats dispatched to Austria and their families is of utmost priority for us.” A US State Department spokesperson also mentioned how the US government is “vigorously investigating reports of possible unexplained health incidents among the US Embassy Vienna community or wherever they are reported.”

Although there is no solid proof till date, some of the possible explanations for the mysterious symptoms include reactions to a pesticide, a deliberate poisoning and—most notably—an attack with a sonic or microwave weapon or covert spying device. A clue which supports the former is a theory that was revealed by the National Security Agency in 2014. The statement described such weapons as a “high-powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate or kill an enemy over time without leaving evidence.” The statement goes on to explain how the weapon is  “designed to bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves.”

In these terms, microwave weapons are a type of direct energy weapons, which aim highly focused energy in the form of sonic, laser or microwaves at a target. It works the same way the microwave ovens in our kitchens do—with an electron tube called a magnetron producing electromagnetic waves (microwaves). The microwaves agitate the water molecules in the food and their vibration produces heat that cooks the food. This is why foods with a high water content cook faster in a microwave than drier foods.

Similarly, the high-frequency electromagnetic radiations from microwave weapons heat water in the human body to cause discomfort and pain.

A report published by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) also found “directed microwave radiation” to be the plausible cause of the Havana syndrome. The report examined four possibilities to explain the symptoms: infection, chemicals, psychological factors and microwave energy before concluding on the latter. It also warned about the possibility of future episodes and recommended establishing a response mechanism for similar incidents—adding that future incidents might be more dispersed in time and place, and even more difficult to recognise.

However, the committee added how they could not rule out other possible mechanisms and considers it likely that a “multiplicity of factors explains some cases and the differences between others.” Although the US praised NAS for undertaking the effort, it highlighted how each possible cause remains speculative. It also flagged the committee’s lack of access to some information because of potential security concerns that limited the scope of the report.

One notable aspect of the study is the use of the words “directed” and “pulsed” when referring to the radiation. The report hence leaves no room for confusion that the victims’ exposure was targeted and not due to common sources of microwave energy.

The alleged road to recovery

Fuelled back into much-needed call to action by The New York Times, the news of the syndrome being traced in Vienna comes right after Pegasus spyware was revealed to have been used in hacking attempts on 37 smartphones belonging to human rights activists and journalists. According to The Guardian, the spyware—developed by the Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group—is capable of extracting all of a mobile phone’s data and activating the microphone to listen in on conversations.

The list of journalists dates back to 2016 and includes reporters from The Washington Post, CNN, the Associated Press, Voice of America, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Le Monde, The Financial Times, and Al Jazeera. Although in a statement emailed to The Verge, an NSO spokesperson denied the claims in the report, saying it was “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources,” it’s not the first time the spyware has been accused of playing a part in a larger “surveillance campaign.”

Between July and August 2020, research organisation Citizen Lab found 36 phones belonging to Al Jazeera journalists hacked using the technology—suspecting Saudi Arabia and the UAE behind the cyber attack. In 2019, WhatsApp sued NSO, claiming Pegasus was used to hack users of WhatsApp’s encrypted chat service.

Such weapons are essentially being used to intimidate, terrorise and discredit targeted individuals. With cyber attacks like extortionware gathering momentum as we speak, such schemes leverage mental health systems as a cover to carry out psychological warfare operations. While studies have credited natural blink reflexes, aversion responses and head turning as potential measures to protect our eyes from microwave weapons, it is still not clear if they can kill human targets. But it’s only a matter of time before such technology is weaponised for mass destruction.

How to keep your brain healthy

Mental health and physical health are talked about a lot. However, people don’t talk enough about brain health. In your 20s and 30s, your brain health probably isn’t top of your agenda—who cares how sharp you’re going to be in your 80s? However, as people slide into midlife, they really start to become aware of their declining brain health: forgetting where things are, not coming up with funny remarks as quickly, and more. This guide will show you a few things that you can do to keep your brain healthy.

Exercise regularly

It should come as no surprise that exercise is at the top of this list. Yes, it really is the answer to everything. It improves your physical health, your mental health, and your brain health. Regular exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline. Plus, it makes it easy to concentrate and keeps you mentally sharp. There’s no getting around it—you need to exercise if you want to live a long and healthy life.

Get plenty of sleep

Yep, sleep is important as well. Anyone who understands the human body won’t be shocked to see that high-quality sleep is linked to brain health as well. Sleep allows our body to repair and re-energise for the next day. If you miss out on sleep, your body and brain will suffer. How much sleep you get isn’t the only important thing either, the quality of the sleep matters. The more time spent in the REM stage of sleep, the better. That means you need uninterrupted sleep.

Eat a Mediterranean diet

If you’re serious about improving your brain health, you should consider eating a Mediterranean diet. This diet involves a lot of vegetables, oil, fruit, fish, and nuts. According to experts, the most important ingredient in this diet (for brain health) is extra-virgin olive oil. It is thought to reduce the formation of plaque and tangles in the brain.

Play online games

Believe it or not, gaming can actually help your brain stay healthier for longer. For years, people have falsely claimed that gaming rots your brain. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Games require active attention and stimulate the brain in a unique way. Check out the top casino games or play a game that is designed specifically for brain training.

Stay mentally active

If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. This mantra is a great way to think about brain health. It’s important to use your brain actively every day if you want to stay sharp. Something as simple as a crossword puzzle every day can stimulate your brain and keep it from decaying. Never stop challenging yourself.

Remain socially involved

Social activity is really important if you want to keep your brain healthy. Building social networks and engaging in social activity improve cognitive function and keep your mind agile.

It can even reduce the risk of dementia. Who knew that having friends was actually good for your brain health? Stay in touch with your loved ones and your mind will stay sharp as a razor.