"Havana Syndrome" symptoms identified in Canadian tourist who visited Cuba

Elianna Lev
·3 mins read
Passengers board a flight bound for Europe at José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba. (Getty)
Passengers board a flight bound for Europe at José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba. (Getty)

A case study is detailing the strange symptoms a Canadian woman experienced shortly before getting on a flight home from vacation in Cuba. The bizarre illness appeared to be in line with the unusual sickness experienced by American and Canadian diplomats in the Caribbean country, which has been referred to as “Havana Syndrome”.

The study published in JAMA Neurology describes how the 69-year-old woman started feeling unwell with “generalized weakness, increased sweating, severe nausea, and vomiting,” two hours before her flight was set to depart. While on the plane, more strange symptoms developed, including lethargy, vomiting, and urinary incontinence. Once back in Canada, she was sent to emergency, where she was “stuporous and required intubation”. The case study notes that the woman had no allergies and had nothing concerning in her medical history.

Most of the woman’s test results came back normal, except a CT scan, which revealed her globus pallidi was denser then normal on both sides. That’s the part of the brain that controls conscious movement.

After a few hours, the woman’s consciousness improved spontaneously and she was extubated, in a state described as “alert but disoriented.” The muscles in her face twitched spontaneously and her movements were jerky.

The patient was eventually diagnosed with organophosphate poisoning, which is generally associated with close contact to dangerous levels of organophosphates. Organophosphates are chemical substances found in insecticides, herbicides, some medications and nerve gases. Organophosphate poisoning can be linked to farm labourers who are exposed to the chemicals at work. However, the researchers noted that Cuba uses “aggressive insecticide fumigation” as a preventative measure against the Zika virus. They also discovered that the woman was the only one in her group to eat a sandwich, which consisted of ham, cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise, and a bottle of water at the airport. About 30 minutes after she ate her meal, the patient began to experience the strange symptoms.

After the woman was discharged, her symptoms continued. Five months after she was hospitalized, researchers reported that she had ongoing neurological issues, such anorexia, “daily headaches, insomnia, impaired concentration and memory, tinnitus, and unsteadiness.” She also experienced a shortened attention span, executive function and memory issues.

Researchers confirmed that these symptoms were “consistent with neurocognitive symptoms previously reported among U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba.” The woman also reported feeling an imbalance in her inner ears, diagnosed as vestibulopathy, which can lead to vertigo.

“She failed to complete testing for spatial working memory and decision-making quality; both were found to be significantly impaired among Canadian diplomats with suspected acquired neurotoxicity secondary to [organophosphate] poisoning.”

First seen amongst diplomats, families

The so-called “Havana Syndrome” became known as a set of symptoms experienced by U.S. and Canadian diplomats who were stationed in Cuba between 2016 and 2018.

In 2019, 15 Canadians who were based in Cuba — five diplomats along with their children and spouses — sued the federal government for $28 million over the mysterious illness they experienced while stationed there. In a statement filed in federal court, the anonymous plaintiffs allege having “been targeted and injured, suffering severe and traumatic harm by means that are not clear.” They described concussion-like symptoms such as nosebleeds, dizziness, confusion, and headaches.

“My brain just doesn't work the way it used to,” one woman told CTV News.

“My kids are having nosebleeds,” said another. “My youngest son is passing out for no reason.”

The mysterious illness is believed to be a result of exposure to low-doses of organophosphates.

Cuba responds

On Wednesday, the Cuban ambassador to Canada, Josefina Vidal, released a statement assuring Canadians that the country is safe to visit and the JAMA report refers to “health symptoms reported by a person more than a year ago.”

“Cuba has been and continues to be a safe destination for tourists from all over the world, including Canadians, who have historically shown their preference for an island that offers them, not only natural beauties, a rich culture and a warm and welcoming people, but safety,” the statement reads.