The Social Construction of ‘Havana Syndrome’

  • Robert W. BalohEmail author
  • Robert E. Bartholomew


In this chapter, We review the evidence that the 2016–2018 illness outbreak in Cuba was caused by a combination of mass psychogenic illness and the redefinition of mundane complaints that were reframed within a Cold War context. The episode closely follows social networks as those affected were exclusively embassy diplomats or their family members. While studies of patients have found the presence of brain trauma or ear damage, each contain serious methodological flaws and lack adequate controls. The evidence for mass psychogenic illness is overwhelming. History is replete with historical antecedents spanning several centuries. The social construction of ‘Havana Syndrome’ exemplifies the power of belief and the nocebo and placebo effects. The events in Cuba are an opportunity to educate the global community on just how common these episodes are and how to identify their key features. The strange case of ‘Havana Syndrome’ illustrates that mass psychogenic illness poses a major public health challenge as the diagnosis is often contentious and can inflame international relations.


Mass psychogenic illness Mass sociogenic illness Collective unexplained symptoms Conversion disorder Mass hysteria Functional neurological symptom disorder Anxiety Public health Nocebo effect Contested diagnoses The politics of illness Social panic 


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Neurology and Head and Neck SurgeryDavid Geffen School of Medicine at UCLALos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Psychological MedicineUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

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