What Is Havana Syndrome And Should We Be Worried?

In late 2016, U.S. diplomats serving in Havana, Cuba, started hearing high-pitched sounds and experiencing nausea and vertigo. Doctors couldn't explain why these two dozen people fell ill at the same time.

Since then, similar incidents have been reported among government workers in 96 countries around the world (per CNN). At first, U.S. intelligence agencies investigated the possibility of a targeted foreign attack. One intelligence panel believed that "pulsed electromagnetic energy" could have caused the symptoms of Havana syndrome. Five U.S. intelligence agencies said in 2023 that Havana syndrome was not due to an attack by a foreign adversary (via the Washington Post). However, a recent 60 Minutes investigation into Havana syndrome concluded that a Russian intelligence unit might be responsible.

People with Havana syndrome have experienced short-term symptoms such as suddenly hearing loud screeching, blurry vision, head pressure, ear pain, and hearing loss. Chronic symptoms include loss of hearing, problems with concentration, insomnia, headache, and dizziness. Although cases of Havana syndrome had only been reported among U.S. diplomats and families while abroad, the 60 Minutes investigation reports that U.S. officials had been struck with Havana syndrome while on U.S. soil.

Havana syndrome has stumped the medical community

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health took MRI brain images of people with Havana syndrome, or what the U.S. government calls anomalous health incidents (AHIs). In a 2024 article in JAMA, MRI scans of 81 people who experienced Havana syndrome were compared to 48 people who served as controls. Several months later, 49 of the people with Havana syndrome repeated their MRI. The researchers didn't find much difference in brain imagery between the people with Havana syndrome and the control condition.

One of the study's authors, Carlo Pierpaoli, M.D., Ph.D., said these brain imaging results show that Havana syndrome shouldn't cause concern about permanent changes in the brain. "It is possible that individuals with an AHI may be experiencing the results of an event that led to their symptoms, but the injury did not produce the long-term neuroimaging changes that are typically observed after severe trauma or stroke," Pierpaoli said in an NIH news release.

Another 2024 NIH study in JAMA conducted balance, hearing, vision, blood biomarkers, and neuropsychological testing on 86 people with Havana syndrome. Compared to controls, people with Havana syndrome reported more fatigue, depression, post-traumatic stress, and neurobehavioral symptoms. However, there were no differences between groups on the objective tests such as balance, vision, and blood biomarkers.

Should I be worried about Havana syndrome?

Despite all the theories regarding possible foreign adversaries, a 2023 report from the Director of National Intelligence maintains that Havana syndrome said that symptoms were more likely a combination of "pre-existing conditions, conventional illnesses, and environmental factors." Havana syndrome has only been reported among people who have worked in some capacity with the U.S. government. In other words, Havana syndrome isn't a communicable disease.

However, the buzz of media attention surrounding Havana syndrome has led some people who have no connections to the U.S. government to believe they have similar symptoms. This is called a psychogenic mass illness, and it occurs when people who receive misinformation or false information about a disease begin experiencing real symptoms (per American Family Physician). According to Psychiatrist.com, one woman resisted entering the operating room to treat wounds from a car accident because she feared the radiation and radio frequency waves. She said she had Havana syndrome, blaming the electricity from power lines in her home.