Havana Syndrome | 08 Dec 2020

Why in News

Recently, a report by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), USA has found directed microwave radiation to be the plausible cause of the Havana syndrome.

Key Points

  • Havana Syndrome:
    • In late 2016, USA diplomats and other employees stationed in Havana (capital of Cuba) reported feeling ill after hearing strange sounds and experiencing odd physical sensations.
    • The symptoms included nausea, severe headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sleep problems, and hearing loss, which have since come to be known as the Havana Syndrome.
    • The more chronic problems suffered by Havana personnel included mainly vestibular processing and cognitive problems as well as insomnia and headache.
    • While the symptoms have resolved for some of the affected employees, for others, the effects have lingered and posed a significant obstacle to their work and affected the normal functioning of lives.
  • About the Report:
    • The NAS report examined four possibilities to explain the symptoms viz. infection, chemicals, psychological factors and microwave energy.
    • So far, only this report provides the clearest and detailed estimation of what may have transpired.
      • In earlier attempts by various other government agencies, scientists talked about psychological illness due to the stressful environment of foreign missions or brain abnormalities in the diplomats who had fallen ill.
  • Findings of the Report:
    • Directed pulsed microwave radiation energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining the cases of Havana syndrome among those that the committee considered.
      • By calling it “directed” and “pulsed” energy, the report leaves no room for confusion that the victims’ exposure was targeted and not due to common sources of microwave energy.
    • The immediate symptoms that patients reported, including sensations of pain and buzzing sound, apparently emanated from a particular direction, or occurred in a specific spot in a room.
    • It warns about the possibility of future episodes and recommends establishing a response mechanism for similar incidents, adding that future incidents might be more dispersed in time and place, and even more difficult to recognise quickly.
    • However, the committee cannot rule out other possible mechanisms and considers it likely that a multiplicity of factors explains some cases and the differences between others.
    • It also does not mention the source and if the energy was delivered intentionally, even though it conducted significant research on microwave weapons.
  • USA’s Reaction:
    • The USA has praised the NAS for undertaking the effort but also highlighted that each possible cause remains speculative. It also flagged the committee’s lack of access to some information because of potential security concerns that limit the scope of the report.
    • The government also included a provision in the new defence authorisation bill to provide long-term emergency care benefits to the government employees affected by the syndrome.
    • The USA had accused Cuba of carrying out “attacks”, but Cuba denied any knowledge of the illnesses.

Microwave Weapons

  • These are supposed to be a type of direct energy weapons, which aim highly focused energy in the form of sonic, laser, or microwaves, at a target.
  • The high-frequency electromagnetic radiations heat the water in the human body and cause discomfort and pain. It works the same way as the kitchen appliance.
    • In a microwave oven, an electron tube called a magnetron produces electromagnetic waves (microwaves) that bounce around the metal interior of the appliance, and are absorbed by the food.
    • The microwaves agitate the water molecules in the food, and their vibration produces heat that cooks the food. Foods with a high water content cook faster in a microwave often than drier foods.
  • Countries with Microwave Weapons:
    • A number of countries are thought to have developed these weapons to target both humans and electronic systems.
    • China had first put on display its microwave weapon, called Poly WB-1, at an air show in 2014.
    • The USA has also developed a prototype microwave-style weapon, which it calls the “Active Denial System”, which is the first non-lethal, directed-energy, counter-personnel system with an extended range greater than currently fielded non-lethal weapons.
  • Concerns:
    • American diplomats and members of their families in Cuba and China were suspected to have been targeted using ‘microwave weapons’ (Havana Syndrome).
      • People exposed to high-intensity microwave pulses have reported a clicking or buzzing sound, as if seeming to be coming from within the head.
    • Concerns have been raised on whether they can damage the eyes, or have a carcinogenic impact in the long term.
    • It is not clear yet whether these can kill or cause lasting damage in human targets.
    • The USA holds that studies have shown that natural blink reflex, aversion response and head turn all protect the eyes from the weapon.

Source: IE