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, bother 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 known as mass hysteria?
Since 2016, tons 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 worldwide areas, together with Russia and China. As most had 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 admittedly behind Havana syndrome. “Mass hysteria is an outbreak of a bodily sickness in a gaggle that seems to have an natural or physiological trigger, however really stems from psychological causes, usually from anxiousness,” says Gary Small, MD, professor of psychiatry at UCLA.
The query is way from settled. However MPI just isn’t a brand new phenomenon; examples pop up all through historical past. And whereas the signs, sufferers, and areas 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 gentle on the current murky state of affairs: If Havana syndrome is one other MPI, how does it evaluate to MPIs up to now? Can historic situations 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 generally 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 folks adopted go well with embrace 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 had been a response to quite a few women having outlandish, inexplicable matches. The reason for these convulsions and their interpretation as proof of witchcraft are nonetheless debated. However collective stress ensuing from current epidemics and posttraumatic stress dysfunction from the continuing King William’s Struggle, from which lots of the affected women had 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 sort 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 women’ 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 college, forcing its closure. The epidemic then unfold to a village to which a number of college students had returned.
Boston Faculty Play Incident, 1979
Small co-authored a research of a 1979 incident at a Boston elementary faculty when, whereas performing in an end-of-year play, an influential boy grew to become dizzy and fell, bleeding profusely. This triggered psychogenic responses together with dizziness, hyperventilation, and belly ache in one-third of the coed physique.
“There are a variety of psychological stressors amongst these children, not to mention simply the efficiency anxiousness they’re experiencing,” says Small, whose findings advised a relationship between childhood loss, equivalent 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 women and some feminine Israeli troopers within the occupied West Financial institution. Israel and Palestine traded allegations of chemical warfare, however finally an area well being official concluded that whereas the primary 20% of instances had been most likely attributable to an unidentified gasoline, the rest had been primarily psychosomatic, in line with Time journal.
Santa Monica Sickness, 1989
A UCLA investigation of a 1989 incident during which 247 pupil performers, most of them feminine, grew to become violently ailing at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium equally famous that youngsters who noticed a good friend turn out to be sick had been the almost definitely to develop signs, which had been thus transmitted by way of social networks.
Mexico Metropolis Leg Ache Incident, 2006
Tons of of women 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 no less than some Havana syndrome instances and historic MPI outbreaks. MPI normally begins amongst a small, cohesive group of individuals of upper standing, in a aggravating state of affairs, after which spreads.
“The involvement of 4 [CIA agents] from the identical station is a defining characteristic of mass psychogenic sickness, which is thought to observe social networks,” says New Zealand-based medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew, PhD.
Most Havana syndrome instances are personnel remoted removed from house in abroad embassies, not not like the boarding college students concerned in lots of MPI outbreaks. They’re bonded by a aggravating work surroundings, below 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” buddies.
Some signs beforehand attributed to MPI, together with headache, dizziness, and nausea, have been related to Havana syndrome. Bartholomew advised that “reframing” of those widespread complaints by these affected, to replicate what docs and authorities authorities are telling them, may contribute to the phenomenon. In different phrases, folks is perhaps experiencing generic signs widespread in MPI and be inclined to sinister explanations — with none proof for them.
Havana syndrome outbreaks are separated by generally 1000’s 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 properly conscious of graphic descriptions of Havana syndrome signs from friends all over the world, a few of whom could be personally identified to them from prior postings.
Nonetheless, Havana syndrome doesn’t meet all widespread MPI standards. Small famous “a preponderance of signs [of MPI] in women or girls in contrast with boys or males.” Certainly, MPI disproportionately impacts younger women greater than some other demographic. But nearly all of Havana syndrome instances 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 consultants keep that early instances of Havana syndrome current unambiguous proof of neurological harm per publicity to microwave radiation. But they continue to be open to contributing psychosocial components in no less than some situations.
“We discovered [microwave radiation] to be most believable in explaining a subset of the instances, not all instances,” says David Relman, MD, a Stanford College microbiologist who headed the Nationwide Academy of Sciences research 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 instances on the Havana embassy “had goal options — clinically relatable, objectifiable, and legitimate and evidentiary indicators — that had been indicative of some type of neurological trauma or insult.” However he famous that solely a fraction of the worldwide incidents to this point have been verified as assembly the total, goal medical standards for the kind of anomalous well being incident generally known as Havana syndrome.
After 5 years, tons of of instances 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-Struggle-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 Faculty of African and Asian Research on the College of Sussex, his work has appeared within the Los Angeles Instances, Nationwide Geographic Traveler, LA Weekly, and lots of others.