access_time published 23.02.2018

Sonic attack claims stir controversy in the United States

Robert E. Bartholomew
Dionisio F Zaldívar Pérez

Public health

Sonic attack claims stir controversy in the United States

23.02.2018

A controversy has erupted in the United States over claims by the State Department that 24 staff at the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba, were sickened by an acoustic weapon.

The ‘attacks’ are alleged to have occurred between late 2016 and October 2017. The victims have since been evacuated to the US mainland for treatment. Some have since recovered and resumed work. Several Canadian diplomats have reported similar symptoms, which include: headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, tinnitus, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, confusion, insomnia, partial hearing loss, nosebleeds, ‘mild brain trauma’ and ‘white matter track changes’ in the brain.

On 9 January 2018, State Department Medical Director Dr Charles Rosenfarb told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “The findings suggest that this is not a case of mass hysteria.” The Hearing ended with Committee Chair Marco Rubio asserting that two clear conclusions could be drawn: that an attack took place and the Cuba government was either directly involved or complicit. The Hearings were characterised by political partisanship and leading questions. For instance, in raising the possibility of mass psychogenic illness, Mr Rubio inquired: “Dr Rosenfarb...is there any thought given to the fact that this is a case of mass hysteria. That a bunch of people are just being hypochondriacs and making it up.” This line of questioning appears to dismiss the possibility of a psychological cause, and implies that victims of mass psychogenic illness are hypochondriacs and malingerers. Rubio’s conclusions are in contrast with an investigation by the FBI, which found “no evidence” that an attack took place, sonic or otherwise.

It is important to understand the backdrop of the attack claims. The US has only recently renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba. Prior to this time, there was a tense relationship between the two countries. The ‘attacks’ did not occur at the Embassy, but in two large, nearby hotels and at the homes of Embassy staff, who were supposedly targeted across the city, sometimes while in close proximity to other people who were not affected. The ‘victims’ reported hearing sounds or feeling sensations while or within an hour of feeling unwell. Once the initial cluster of patients presented, State Department medical personnel immediately assumed, based on the sounds and sensations that were reported, that the most likely cause was an acoustic weapon. Their first point of consultation was a specialist in acoustic medicine. The initial assumption of an acoustic attack was a key factor driving the diagnosis. Rosenfarb testified that among the descriptions were “a high pitched beam of sound,” and a “baffling sensation akin to driving with windows partially down…” These are vague symptoms and appear more consistent with tinnitus and ambiguous somatic complaints. Instead, the more exotic hypothesis was pursued. This would seem unjustified, as the majority of reported symptoms are not associated with sonic weapons, effects of which are nausea, irritability and anxiety.

The two most dramatic symptoms that received much media attention are reports of ‘white matter track changes’ and ‘mild brain trauma.’ However, these are not symptoms of acoustic exposure, be it ultrasound, at the upper limit of human hearing (20 000 Hertz), or infrasound, at the lower limit of hearing (below 20 Hertz). The likelihood of an acoustic attack in Cuba is implausible and inconsistent with the scientific literature, as acoustic weaponry is conspicuous, impractical and incapable of producing the array of symptoms reported. White matter track changes are common in an array of conditions ranging from depression to normal aging. Scans must be interpreted. We are also dealing with a small sample size for identifying a definitive cause and effect relationship. Furthermore, not all of the 24 patients have these conditions. The description of ‘concussion-like symptoms,’ is also ambiguous.

Rosenfarb stated that “Mission personnel describe a multitude of symptoms, many of which are not easily quantifiable and not easily attributable to a specific cause. The sharing of information that occurs in a small, tight-knit community has helped identify more affected personnel, but, as typically is the case with any community outbreak, also can complicate an epidemiological investigation. However, the most challenging factor is the lack of certainty about the causative agent and, therefore, the precise mechanism of the injuries suffered.” This statement is more suggestive of psychogenic illness than acoustic exposure. An array of ambiguous symptoms within a close-knit community under stress in a foreign country that has a long history of difficult relations is a classic context for an outbreak of psychogenic complaints.

It is notable that many of the victims described the mysterious sounds accompanying their symptoms as a high-pitched whining noise resembling cicadas or crickets. A Cuban Committee investigating the sonic attack, which includes this article’s co-author, has pointed out that both crickets and cicadas are common in Havana. The US government’s claims are short on facts and long on speculation. Until more definitive, concrete evidence is produced, we should be sceptical of claims that a sonic attack took place in Cuba.

 

 

Postscript:

On 15 February 2018, a preliminary study on the "sonic attacks" appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association.  For a study that had promised so much based on leaks to the media including reports of concussion-like symptoms and white matter tract changes, the findings were inconclusive.  For each claim, there are plausible alternative explanations. Their dismissal of the possibility of mass psychogenic illness due to the prolonged nature of the symptoms, and assertion that it could not have been malingering because patients expressed a desire to return to work, shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the literature on conversion disorder.  In the absence of conclusive medical findings, a plausible alternative explanation remains psychogenic illness triggered by a group of close-knit staff working for the same department in an anxiety-filled, hostile, foreign environment in a country with a long and well-known history of targeting US Embassy personnel:  a classic set-up for MPI outbreaks. 

 

Disclosure statement

No financial support relevant to this article was reported.

Competing interests

Dionisio Perez is a member of the Cuban government committee investigating the "attacks".

Header photo

© Kmiragaya / Dreamstime.com

Robert E. Bartholomew

Research Fellow, Center for Inquiry, Amherst, New York; Department of History and Social Sciences, Botany College, Auckland, New Zealand

Dionisio F Zaldívar Pérez

Facultad de Psicología Universidad dela Habana, Havana University, Havana, Cuba

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