Health problems of U.S. diplomats in Cuba still a mystery

 usatoday.com  2/15/2018 5:33:19 PM   Jessica Durando

“Buzzing, grinding metal, piercing squeals and humming.” 

These are the words U.S. diplomats in Cuba used to described the hearing, vision, balance and brain symptoms suffered in 2016 in what the State Department has called "health attacks."

Doctors unveiled the first detailed medical reports late Wednesday but a clear diagnosis of what happened to trigger their health problems is still a mystery.

The symptoms are similar to the brain dysfunction seen with concussions, specialists from the University of Pennsylvania found after testing 21 of the 24 embassy personnel believed to be impacted. 

In an editorial, the Journal of the American Medical Association said a conclusion “remains elusive” and “many potential causes for the symptoms.... remain possibilities."

"Before reaching any definitive conclusions, additional evidence must be obtained and rigorously and objectively evaluated,” the editorial said.

The situation began in late 2016 when a series of U.S. diplomats in Havana began suffering unexplained losses of hearing and the beginnings of neurological symptoms.

Several of the diplomats had recently arrived at the embassy, which reopened in 2015 as part of former president Obama’s re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba and relaxation of travel restrictions.

The U.S. government personnel in Cuba reported hearing these weird, loud sounds along with feelings of changes in air pressure in their homes owned and maintained by the Cuban government and hotel rooms. Although there had been no history of head trauma, the symptoms reported were consistent with brain injury. 

The State Department created an expert panel in July 2017, which found that the initial findings were most likely related to "neurotrauma from a non-natural source" and the department recommended further investigation. 

The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair was selected to coordinate the evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation of the patients.

Whatever the cause, the Havana patients “experienced persisting disability of a significant nature,” the University of Pennsylvania team found.

Cuba has said there were no attacks and strongly denied any allegations of wrongdoing.

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