By Paul Rogers
In 2016, CIA officers in Havana, Cuba, began having unexplained well being points. They reported a persistent piercing sound adopted by signs together with complications, nausea, vertigo, hassle concentrating, and reminiscence loss. Was it a brand new situation? Or was it the most recent incidence of the centuries-old phenomenon of mass psychogenic sickness, previously referred to as mass hysteria?
Since 2016, lots of of incidents of what’s now dubbed “Havana syndrome” have been recorded by U.S. intelligence and Overseas Service personnel in a rising checklist of world places, together with Russia and China. As most have been working in hotbeds of espionage, surrounded by conventional U.S adversaries, many within the American authorities and media quickly started to suspect foul play.
Others are skeptical, theorizing that mass psychogenic sickness (MPI) is basically behind Havana syndrome. “Mass hysteria is an outbreak of a bodily sickness in a bunch that seems to have an natural or physiological trigger, however truly stems from psychological causes, usually from anxiousness,” says Gary Small, MD, professor of psychiatry at UCLA.
The query is way from settled. However MPI shouldn’t be a brand new phenomenon; examples pop up all through historical past. And whereas the signs, sufferers, and places differ, some traits maintain regular: these sicknesses are sometimes born of stress, and so they unfold like wildfire amongst shut social networks. No two “epidemics” are precisely alike, however historical past might shed some mild on the current murky scenario: If Havana syndrome is one other MPI, how does it examine to MPIs up to now? Can historic cases of mass psychogenic sickness contribute to a greater understanding of this elusive medical enigma?
Dancing Mania, 1518
MPI has been acknowledged because the Center Ages. Dancing mania was first reported in Seventh-century Europe and reappeared throughout that continent till the seventeenth century, comprising big crowds dancing erratically for typically days at a time. A notable 1518 outbreak started with the feverish cavorting of a lone lady within the streets of Strasbourg in modern-day France. Theories as to why teams of as much as 400 individuals adopted swimsuit embody stress-induced psychosis ensuing from widespread illness and famine within the area.
Salem Witch Trials, 1692
The notorious Salem, MA, witch trials of 1692-1693 have been a response to quite a few ladies having outlandish, inexplicable matches. The reason for these convulsions and their interpretation as proof of witchcraft are nonetheless debated. However collective pressure ensuing from latest epidemics and posttraumatic stress dysfunction from the continuing King William’s Conflict, from which lots of the affected ladies have been refugees, have been cited as components.
“You are likely to see patterns,” says Small. “Individuals affected usually are in remoted conditions. There’s some form of stress that the group is experiencing with none technique of resolving it.”
Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, 1962
The 1962 Tanganyika laughter epidemic started at a mission-run ladies’ boarding faculty in Kashasha, Tanzania. Beginning with three college students, matches of laughter lasting as much as a number of days unfold all through the varsity, forcing its closure. The epidemic then unfold to a village to which a number of college students had returned.
Boston College Play Incident, 1979
Small co-authored a study of a 1979 incident at a Boston elementary faculty when, whereas performing in an end-of-year play, an influential boy turned dizzy and fell, bleeding profusely. This triggered psychogenic responses together with dizziness, hyperventilation, and stomach ache in one-third of the scholar physique.
“There are a selection of psychological stressors amongst these children, not to mention simply the efficiency anxiousness they’re experiencing,” says Small, whose findings recommended a relationship between childhood loss, corresponding to parental divorce or household demise, and susceptibility to MPI.
West Financial institution Fainting Epidemic, 1983
In 1983, an outbreak of mass fainting and nausea affected 943 Palestinian ladies and some feminine Israeli troopers within the occupied West Financial institution. Israel and Palestine traded allegations of chemical warfare, however in the end a neighborhood well being official concluded that whereas the primary 20% of circumstances have been most likely brought on by an unidentified gasoline, the rest have been primarily psychosomatic, in line with Time journal.
Santa Monica Sickness, 1989
A UCLA investigation of a 1989 incident through which 247 pupil performers, most of them feminine, turned violently in poor health at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium equally famous that kids who noticed a pal grow to be sick have been the most probably to develop signs, which have been thus transmitted by way of social networks.
Mexico Metropolis Leg Ache Incident, 2006
Tons of of ladies at a boarding faculty close to Mexico Metropolis skilled unexplained leg ache, nausea, and fever throughout 2006-2007. It was a closed group, with college students denied entry to tv or radio. The ensuing virtually familial bonds between them might have contributed to what psychiatrist Nashyiela Loa Zavala, who investigated the case, has termed the “audiovisual contagion” of MPI.
How Havana Syndrome Compares
Commonalities exist between a minimum of some Havana syndrome circumstances and historic MPI outbreaks. MPI normally begins amongst a small, cohesive group of individuals of upper standing, in a disturbing scenario, after which spreads.
“The involvement of 4 [CIA agents] from the identical station is a defining function of mass psychogenic sickness, which is thought to comply with social networks,” says New Zealand-based medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew, PhD.
Most Havana syndrome circumstances are personnel remoted removed from residence in abroad embassies, not in contrast to the boarding college students concerned in lots of MPI outbreaks. They’re bonded by a disturbing work setting, beneath fixed surveillance, and certain cognizant of Russia’s alleged prior use of microwave transmissions to disrupt U.S. intelligence. But for causes of nationwide safety, they’re usually unable to share associated anxieties with household or “civilian” pals.
Some signs beforehand attributed to MPI, together with headache, dizziness, and nausea, have been related to Havana syndrome. Bartholomew recommended that “reframing” of those frequent complaints by these affected, to replicate what medical doctors and authorities authorities are telling them, may contribute to the phenomenon. In different phrases, individuals could be experiencing generic signs frequent in MPI and be prone to sinister explanations — with none proof for them.
Havana syndrome outbreaks are separated by typically hundreds of miles, which ostensibly eliminates audiovisual contagion. However the web has redefined the idea of “group” to now transcend geographical proximity. Social media and on-line information undoubtedly made U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers nicely conscious of graphic descriptions of Havana syndrome signs from friends around the globe, a few of whom could be personally recognized to them from prior postings.
Nonetheless, Havana syndrome doesn’t meet all frequent MPI standards. Small famous “a preponderance of signs [of MPI] in ladies or ladies in contrast with boys or males.” Certainly, MPI disproportionately impacts young girls greater than another demographic. But nearly all of Havana syndrome circumstances have been middle-aged males.
There isn’t a consensus on the reason for Havana syndrome. Theories vary from the mating name of crickets to a sonic weapon. Some specialists keep that early circumstances of Havana syndrome current unambiguous proof of neurological harm in line with publicity to microwave radiation. But they continue to be open to contributing psychosocial components in a minimum of some cases.
“We discovered [microwave radiation] to be most believable in explaining a subset of the circumstances, not all circumstances,” says David Relman, MD, a Stanford College microbiologist who headed the Nationwide Academy of Sciences examine of Havana syndrome. Relman mentioned that this subset comprised workers of the American embassy in Cuba and on the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China, which was the second location to report signs.
James Giordano, PhD, professor of neurology at Georgetown College and advisor to the Pentagon, mentioned that the unique circumstances on the Havana embassy “had goal options — clinically relatable, objectifiable, and legitimate and evidentiary indicators — that have been indicative of some type of neurological trauma or insult.” However he famous that solely a fraction of the worldwide incidents thus far have been verified as assembly the total, goal medical standards for the kind of anomalous well being incident referred to as Havana syndrome.
After 5 years, lots of of circumstances on a number of continents, and steady, inconclusive investigation, there might by no means be a definitive reply as to whether Havana syndrome is bodily or psychogenic. However historical past might convey extra readability than Chilly-Conflict-era spycraft. Havana syndrome has some main variations from MPI epidemics of the previous, however in some ways it’s extra comparable than not — and paranoia within the American intelligence group would hardly be unprecedented.
Paul Rogers is a British-born journalist based mostly in Los Angeles. A graduate of the College of African and Asian Research on the College of Sussex, his work has appeared within the Los Angeles Occasions, Nationwide Geographic Traveler, LA Weekly, and lots of others.