Two incidents of the syndrome happened last year near the White House.

By Korin Miller
May 19, 2021
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Earlier this week, news broke that two White House officials came down with a mysterious illness last year that appears to be linked to a similar mystery condition that some officials at US embassies in different countries have also experienced.

The illness, which is known as "Havana Syndrome," struck one official on the National Security Council in November 2020 as they tried to go through an unstaffed gate near the Ellipse, a park just south of the White House, several sources told CNN. They had mild symptoms afterward, including headaches and sleeplessness, and felt better after a week.

What is Havana Syndrome? Here's What to Know
Credit: Alex Sandoval

The second, which happened several weeks later, occurred near an entrance to the White House, CNN says. That person had more severe symptoms and needed immediate medical treatment.

These are hardly the first instances of Havana Syndrome. In fact, there have been more than 130 reports of people being stricken by the syndrome across the world over the past five years, according to The New York Times. Those include US diplomats and other government workers in Cuba, Russia, and China, among other areas.

So what's going on here? The truth is, there's still a lot that researchers and investigators looking into Havana Syndrome don't know. Here's what the available information says so far.

What is Havana Syndrome?

Havana Syndrome is a mysterious illness that was first detected at the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba in 2016, according to the BBC. From 2016 to 2017, diplomats and staff suddenly developed surprising symptoms like hearing loss, dizziness, and other neurological issues.

An investigation was launched, and US officials accused the Cuban government of carrying out sonic attacks on American citizens. (Cuba denied this.) Havana Syndrome wasn't just linked to the American embassy—at least 14 staffers at the Canadian embassy in Cuba also had symptoms, the BBC reports.

Since then, more instances have been reported around the world, with The New York Times reporting that at least three CIA officers have reported serious health issues from Havana Syndrome episodes while serving overseas. In one 2019 case, an officer who was serving overseas says he had severe nausea and headaches after pulling into an intersection, and his 2-year-old son who was in the backseat started crying. After the officer left the intersection, he felt better and his son stopped crying.

A 2019 study published in JAMA of 40 people who were potentially exposed and had neurological symptoms of Havana Syndrome found that these patients had "significantly smaller" whole brain white matter volume (which improves the speed and transmission of electrical nerve signals in the brain) and other "significant differences" in brain structure. The researchers concluded, though, that "the clinical importance of these differences is uncertain."

What are the symptoms of Havana Syndrome?

A report published by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) last year breaks it all down. Most people who have had Havana Syndrome heard a loud noise and felt an intense pressure or vibration in their head, dizziness, and pain in their ear or head.

"The neurologic symptoms reported in Havana syndrome are commonly seen in concussions. The similarities are striking," Amit Sachdev, MD, medical director in the department of neurology at Michigan State University, tells Health.

Some people said the symptoms stopped when they went to another room, and returned when they went back to the same spot when they first experienced the symptoms.

The symptoms go away soon for some people, but others have experienced chronic insomnia, headaches, and even brain damage.

"Brain damage is the one thing that seems irregular to me," Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Health. "The others are pretty typical symptoms that we hear about with ear-related or brain-central conditions like migraines, inflammatory conditions of the inner ear, and any type of stroke."

What causes Havana Syndrome?

So here's why this is a mystery illness: It's not entirely clear what causes Havana Syndrome. The NAS study does point out that the Soviet Union researched the effects of pulsed radio frequency energy more than 50 years ago, but stops short of actually saying pulsed radio frequency energy causes Havana Syndrome.

Instead, the report says that the syndrome is likely caused by a microwave weapon or directed-energy device.

"The committee felt that many of the distinctive and acute signs, symptoms, and observations reported by [government] employees are consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy," the report says, noting that previous research published by both Western and Soviet sources provides "circumstantial support for this possible mechanism."

If there is some kind of device that sends radio frequency energy to the brain or inner ear, "that can potentially alter its function," Dr. Mehdizadeh says, noting that this would be "pretty sci-fi."

Dr. Sachdev says he believes that "this is a real neurologic problem." But, he adds, "the question of why it is happening is harder to answer." Dr. Sachdev also points out that "it is hard to know the pattern of injury from radiofrequency exposure. We just do not see it as a common mechanism of injury."

So what happens now?

This is all ongoing, so federal investigators will continue to research the cases and to try to figure out what's behind them.

According to The New York Times, members of Congress as recently as last month pushed for the CIA to do more to investigate the cases. The CIA has also cut the average wait time for officers to seek treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from eight weeks to less than two.

The New York Times also said that the Biden administration has tried to improve communication between the CIA, State Department, and other agencies to help keep moving the investigation into Havana Syndrome forward—but some still believe officials still need to be more "aggressive" in finding the source of these mysterious illnesses.

"I don't believe that we as a government, in general, have acted quickly enough," Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and former Marine who heads the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations told The New York Times. "We really need to fully understand where this is coming from, what the targeting methods are and what we can do to stop them."

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