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US sets up task force to investigate diplomatic health incidents in Cuba and China

Workers at the U.S. Embassy in Havana leave the building on Sept. 29, 2017, after the State Department announced that it was withdrawing all but essential personnel from the embassy because Cuba could no longer guarantee diplomats' safety. (Emily Michot/Miami Herald/TNS

The State Department has set up a task force that will direct a multi-agency response to mysterious health incidents that have caused symptoms ranging from concussions to hearing loss in U.S. diplomats who were stationed in Cuba and China.

To date, 24 diplomats and family members who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Havana have been medically confirmed as suffering from a range of symptoms that seem to be associated with a high-pitched sound and other auditory sensations. One U.S. government employee in China was recently confirmed as suffering from similar symptoms.

Although some State Department officials have characterized the health incidents in Cuba as “attacks,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday that “the precise nature of the injuries suffered by the affected personnel, and whether a common cause exists for all cases, has not yet been established.”

As early as November 2016, some diplomats stationed in Havana said they heard strange noises in their homes that were accompanied by the onset of symptoms. Similar incidents were reported through August 2017, prompting the United States to withdraw about two-thirds of the staff from its embassy last September.

As part of its response, the United States also expelled 17 Cuban diplomats from Washington, and issued a travel alert for U.S. visitors to the island. Until further notice, family members cannot accompany the skeletal staff that remains at the Havana embassy. While the United States hasn’t directly blamed Cuba for the incidents, it says it does hold the Caribbean nation responsible for not protecting its diplomats while they were on Cuban soil.

In the Chinese case, a single U.S. government employee stationed in Guangzhou in southern China experienced “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure.” That employee was later diagnosed with “mild traumatic brain injury,” the same diagnosis that some of the diplomats stationed in Cuba received.

There has been no drawdown of diplomatic personnel in China in the wake of the incident.

The new Health Incidents Response Team, which was established by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan at Pompeo’s request, will include the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, Justice, Defense and Energy and other members of the foreign affairs community.

Among the duties of the task force will be identifying and treating those affected, investigating the incidents, mitigating future risks and diplomatic outreach.

In addition to concussions and hearing loss, other symptoms associated with the mysterious auditory sensations are dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems, ear complaints and difficulty sleeping.


© 2018 Miami Herald

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