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Scientist: Cuban Illnesses May Be 'Mass Psychogenic' Event

Medical journal publishes letters critical of an original study
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 14, 2018 4:36 PM CDT
In this 2015 photo, a US flag flies at the American embassy in Havana, Cuba.   (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan, File)

(Newser) – Something made a slew of American diplomats in Cuba sick last year, and scientists still aren't sure what it was. A major study commissioned by the US government found that diplomats suffered concussion-like symptoms, and many of them reported hearing strange noises before falling ill. Now, however, four separate letters by scientists in the US and several other nations are challenging that initial study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, reports the Guardian. The critics, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, say the Penn researchers misinterpreted results and too easily dismissed causes such as a "mass psychogenic illness." The Penn researchers, meanwhile, are standing by their work and say additional research continues. Highlights:

  • Psychological? Robert Bartholomew, a US scientist who works in New Zealand, makes the case for a "mass psychogenic illness," also known as mass hysteria, reports BuzzFeed. The Cuban illnesses have all the hallmarks, he says, and he faults the Penn researchers for not investigating how closely the victims knew each other, and perhaps fed off each other in terms of symptoms.
  • Inner ear: Another critic faults the first study for not focusing more on potential inner ear trouble. "Almost all of the patients complained of hearing loss and balance problems," writes Gerard Gianoli of Louisana's Ear and Balance Institute. “I do wish they would be more thoroughly evaluated.”
  • Cognitive results: The Penn researchers found that some victims suffered cognitive damage, but another researcher thinks they're wrong. The Penn scientists considered subjects "impaired" if they scored in the bottom 40% of tests; the more accepted benchmark would be closer to 5%.
(Read more Cuba stories.)

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