U.S. and Cuba Meet About Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On September 13, a Cuban delegation met with U.S. representatives in Washington, D.C. to discuss the medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats on the island. The Cuban multidisciplinary group, made up of nine scientists and physicians, members of a panel of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, was headed by Johana Tablada, United States Deputy Director General of the Cuba Foreign Ministry, and the Cuban Ambassador to the U.S., José R. Cabañas . The US team was chaired by Kenneth Merten, Assistant Principal Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, and made up of medical personnel from the U.S. Department of State.[1]

The following accounts strongly suggest that not much was accomplished at this meeting.

 U.S. Comments[2]

The only official U.S. comments about this meeting were provided after the meeting at the State Department’s general press briefing by the  Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert. She said, “[Some] officials from the Cuban Government are here at the State Department today. . . .to discuss some of the medical issues that our people have experienced [in Cuba].” This included some information “about what our people have been experiencing.”

 An anonymous U.S. official said this “meeting was organized after Cuba complained that Washington has withheld important details about the affected Americans’ medical conditions.”

Other U..S. officials “have frankly admitted in background conversations that they still have no idea who or what may be responsible.”

Cuban Comments[3]

The more extensive Cuba Foreign Ministry statement said the following.

“On September 13, 2018 a meeting took place in Washington D.C. between U.S. and Cuban expert scientists to exchange on the health symptoms reported by U.S. diplomats accredited in Havana.”

Before this meeting, “the Cuban team had reviewed the scarce information about the alleged incidents submitted by the [U.S.] Embassy, the publications by a medical team from the University of Pennsylvania, (especially an article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)), and the works by other scientists, as well as the conclusions of police investigations conducted separately by the authorities of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).”

“In the meeting, the Cuban team received a summary of the information previously reported in JAMA describing the results of medical examination of some of the diplomats. The Cuban team presented their analysis of the shortcomings of this study, challenged its main conclusions and the scientific interpretation of the  symptoms presented to them.”

“At the end of the . . . [meeting], the Cuban experts verified that the information provided is unable to support the hypothesis of health attacks and brain damage suggested so far by the Department of State, as well as the explanations of the symptoms which according to the Department of State, were reported by their diplomats.”

“The Cuban experts particularly reaffirmed that with the information exchanged it is not possible to demonstrate the existence of a new neurological medical syndrome of brain lesion type, nor it is possible to assert that a brain damage like those caused by a blow to the head  was produced without cranial trauma. This idea is impossible.”

The Cuba team “observed that the medical evidence presented has serious limitations. The majority of the cases described . . . symptoms such as: headaches, nausea, dizziness, subjective balance and sleep disorders, which are caused by functional disorders and conditions such as: hypertension, stress and many others with high prevalence in the U.S. and worldwide. The accuracy of the reports could have also been affected by the average of 203 days that lapsed from the time the alleged incidents took place to the date when medical research was conducted.”

“The neuro-psychological tests, considered to be more objective, were assessed with unusual criteria which, applied to a group of healthy individuals, would qualify all of them as ill. If the internationally established  criteria would have been applied only two subjects could be considered afflicted, the cause of which, could be attributed to different pre-existing conditions.”

“According to those studies, only three individuals were found to have mild or moderate hearing loss, with each audiogram showing correspondence with three different diseases that were probably preexisting.”

“The neuro-images showed no evidence of brain damage. Two individuals showed mild signs and a third one showed moderate signs that, according to the JAMA report, are not specific, are present in many diseases and could be attributed to processes that occurred before those persons travelled to Cuba. It has been impossible for the Cuban experts to access these images.”

“he scientific studies, the Cuban police and FBI investigations, as well as the information shared by the Department of State show a lack of evidence of any kind of attack or deliberate act. The Cuban delegation rejected categorically the use of the term ‘attack’ when there is no evidence whatsoever that support the term. The US officials underscored that they did not have an explanation for the incidents.”

“Cuba expressed its willingness to cooperate and reiterated that it is its highest interest to find an explanation to the reports described. As of February 2017, when the U.S. Embassy in Havana informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the alleged ‘acoustic attacks’ against some officials of said diplomatic mission, Cuba has requested and provided the highest cooperation to clarify what happened, and early on suggested to hold a meeting between medical experts from both countries.”

“The Cuban delegation regretted the lack of access to clinical data and to the doctors who assessed the diplomatic personnel who reported health symptoms. Nevertheless, the Cuban team considers that today’s meeting was a positive step, and yet insufficient. To date, the scientific and medical exchange has only taken place indirectly through the publication of scientific articles, political statements and regrettable press leaks.”

“The Cuban medical team extended an invitation to the U.S. investigation team to hold another scientific exchange in Havana in the near future that can be also attended by those professionals who treated the U.S. diplomats”

Essentially the same points were made at a press conference in Washington immediately after the meeting.

Conclusion

This blogger continues to be amazed at the number of theories that have been advanced to explain these health problems and by the U.S. Government’s public inability to assign blame for these problems. [4]

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[1] Lee (Assoc. Press), US, Cuba meet on mysterious ‘health attacks’ in Cuba, Wash. Post (Sept. 13, 2018); Reuters, U.S., Cuba Officials Discuss Mysterious Embassy Health Incidents, N.Y. Times (Sept. 13, 2018); Lee (Assoc. Press), No progress as US, Cuba meet on mysterious ‘health attacks,’ Wash. Post (Sept. 13, 2018).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing—September 13, 2018.

[3] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Specialists from Cuba reject notion of health attacks and brain damage in U.S. diplomats, CubaMinRex (Sept. 14, 2018); Cuban specialists reject the theory of “health attacks” and “brain damage” to US diplomats, Granma (Sept. 13, 2018); Cuban specialists reject in Washington theory of “health attacks” and “brain damage” to US diplomats, Cubadebate (Sept. 13, 2018); Harris, Cuban Experts Insist No Proof exists of Attack on diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 13, 2018).

[4]  See posts listed  in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Call for U.S., Canada and Cuba Joint Investigation of Medical Problems of U.S. and Canadian Diplomats in Cuba  

Luis Velázquez, a Cuban neurologist who was recently appointed president of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, has asked the US and Canadian national science academies for a joint scientific inquiry to examine the evidence behind the alleged attacks on U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba.[1]

The need for such an investigation was buttressed by a letter published in the Journal of Neurology, by Sergio Della Sala and Robert McIntosh, both neuroscientists at the University of Edinburgh, who claim that a U.S. report by University of Pennsylvania scientists is seriously flawed.[2]

Della Sala said much of the evidence the doctors used to propose a new concussion-like syndrome came from six diplomats who each took 37 cognitive tests. The tests looked at visual and auditory attention, working memory, language, reasoning, movement and other cognitive abilities. In their report, the US doctors reveal that all six embassy staff who had the full battery of tests had some brain impairment or another.

But Della Sala and McIntosh say anybody who took the tests would have been classed as impaired. They point out that it is standard practice with cognitive tests to measure people’s performance against others in the population. Often, a person has to score in the bottom 5% to be considered impaired. But the US doctors set the threshold at 40%, meaning that by definition, four in 10 who take the test will be “impaired”.

Della Sala and McIntosh ran a simulation that looked at the probability of passing all 37 tests when the threshold for failure was set so high. “The chances that somebody will be without an impairment is zero,” Della Sala said. “We ran the simulation 1,000 times, and never, ever is there one single individual who appears to be normal. They are all classed as impaired.”

Mark Cohen, a professor of neurology and pioneer in functional brain imaging at University of California, Los Angeles, said there was insufficient evidence to link the diplomats’ health problems to the sounds they heard. “These are symptoms which are typical of many, many causes,” he said. “It is an incautious leap to presume that the cause was related to the reports of sounds heard by these diplomats.”

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[1]  Sample, Cuba calls on US and Canada to investigate ‘sonic attack’ claims, Guardian (May 29, 2018).

[2] The University of Pennsylvania study is referenced in these posts to dwkcommentaries: Discovery of Brain Abnormalities in U.S. Diplomats in Havana with Medical Damage (Dec. 6, 2017); Medical Report on U.S. Diplomats with Health Problems Occurring in Cuba (Feb. 16, 2018); Cuba’s Latest Commentary on “Alleged” Health Incidents Affecting U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (April 27, 2018). Other posts about this situation are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.