Advertisement

The Social Construction of ‘Havana Syndrome’

  • Robert W. BalohEmail author
  • Robert E. Bartholomew
Chapter
  • 17 Downloads

Abstract

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.

Keywords

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 

References

  1. 1.
    Ellis RM. Middle way philosophy: omnibus edition. Raleigh: Lulu; 2015. p. 412.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This story illustrates just how fallible human beings are, and the extent to which perception and memory reconstruction is subject to error – two key factors that help to drive mass hysterias and social panics. One of us (Bartholomew) first heard this story in 1981. After writing it down in 2018, he remembered that his brother had tape-recorded the talk. Upon listening to it, he was astonished to realize that the ‘dragonflies’ had been described as ‘insects,’ while the elephants were buffalo! In fact, his recall of the entire story was considerably different from what had taken place; the man wasn’t even a zoologist but an anthropologist. To read the actual account, see: Turnbull CM. The forest people. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1961.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Conner JW. Social and psychological reality of European witchcraft beliefs. Psychiatry. 1975;38:366–80. See p. 367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Stone R. Cuban panel claims stress caused mystery illness. Science. 2017;358(6368):1236–7. (December 8).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Golden T, Rotella S. The sound and the fury: inside the mystery of the Havana embassy. ProPublica. 2018. https://www.propublica.org/article/diplomats-in-cuba. Accessed 11 Nov 2019.
  6. 6.
    Hoffer ME, Levin BE, Snapp H, Buskirk J, Balaban C. Acute findings in an acquired neurosensory dysfunction. Laryngoscope Investig Otolaryngol. 2018;4:124–31. See p. 5. Even after these findings were released in December 2018, the State Department continued to post a Level 2 Health Advisory for Americans who were considering traveling to Cuba – an Advisory that erroneously claimed that Embassy employees experienced hearing loss.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Dorsey S. Pentagon turns focus to Cuba health ‘attacks’ amid new findings on American victims. CBS News. 12 Sept 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/pentagon-turns-focus-to-cuba-attacks/. Accessed 22 Oct 2019.
  8. 8.
    Nauert, US Department of State Press Briefing, 28 Sept 2017.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Swanson R, Hampton S, Green-McKenzie J, Diaz-Arrastia R, Grady M, Ragini V, et al. Neurological manifestations among US government personnel reporting directional audible and sensory phenomena in Havana, Cuba. JAMA. 2018;319(11):1125–33.  https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.1742. See p. 1131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Sample I. Fresh row over mysterious sickness affecting US diplomats in Cuba. The Guardian. 24 Feb 2018.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba: response and oversight. US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues. Attacks on US diplomats in Cuba. Video of the complete hearing published 2018 Jan 9. https://www.c-span.org/video/?439474-1/state-department-officials-testify-attacks-us-diplomats-cuba. Accessed 22 Oct 2019.
  12. 12.
    Petrie K, Rief W. Psychobiological mechanisms of placebo and nocebo effects: pathways to improve treatments and improve side effects. Annu Rev Psychol. 2019;70:12.1–12.27.  https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-102907. Although mild traumatic brain injury and post-concussion syndrome often occur together, they are not the same thing. Traumatic brain trauma refers to a specific disease mechanism – brain trauma – whereas the post-concussion syndrome is a grouping of symptoms that often occurs after a head injury. The definition of a syndrome is a set of symptoms that occur together, evolve in a characteristic pattern and respond to the same treatment. Post-concussion symptoms are markedly variable, evolve differently and respond to a variety of treatments.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Nelson LD, Tarima S, LaRoche AA, Hammeke TA, Barr WB, Guskiewicz K, et al. Preinjury somatization symptoms contribute to clinical recovery after sport-related concussion. Neurology. 2016;86:1856–63.  https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000002679.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Cantril H. The invasion from Mars: a study in the psychology of panic. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1947. p. 160.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Fradkin EK. The air menace and the answer. New York: The Macmillan Company; 1934. p. 1.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Struewing J, Gray GC. Epidemic of respiratory complaints exacerbated by mass psychogenic illness in a military recruit population. Am J Epidemiol. 1990;132:1120–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Nemery B, Fischler B, Boogaerts M, Lison D, Willems J. The coca-cola incident in Belgium, June 1999. Food Chem Toxicol. 2002;40:1657–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Chapman S, MacKenzie R. Fainting schoolgirls wipe a $A1bn off market value of Gardasil producer. BMJ. 2007;334:1195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Reist M, Klein R. Why are we experimenting with drugs on girls? The Age (Melbourne, Australia). 25 May 2007.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Grimes D. We know it’s effective. So why is there opposition to the HPV vaccine? The Guardian. 11 Jan 2016.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Faiola A. In Cuba, the great American tourism boom goes bust. The Washington Post. 11 May 2018.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    There’s only one way out for Cuba’s dismal economy. The New York Times. 28 Mar 2019.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Greene G. Our man in Havana. London: William Heinemann; 1958.Google Scholar

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

Personalised recommendations