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The Havana Syndrome: An Answer from Science

Dr. Alon Friedman speaks of the findings made by the team of experts at Dalhousie’s Brain Repair Centre who were asked by Global Affairs Canada to find out why Canadian diplomats in Havana became ill in 2016 and 2017. Photo: Will McLernon

When someone in the audience asked Dalhousie University neuroscientist Dr. Alon Friedman whether his conclusion — that Canadian diplomats in Havana had become ill after exposure to an insecticide used to fumigate against Zika virus — was “a fact or a theory,” his response was quick and to the point.

“What do we need to do to prove it?” he asked rhetorically, then answered his own question to laughter and applause. “To fumigate 10 more diplomats?”

Dr. Friedman headed up a multi-disciplinary team of experts at Dalhousie’s Brain Repair Centre who were asked by Global Affairs Canada to find out why Canadian diplomats based in Cuba had become ill during 2016 and 2017.

On Friday, Nov. 1, during “The Cuban Revolution at 60” — a major international academic conference to take the measure of the Cuban Revolution after 60 years — Friedman discussed his findings in public for the first time.

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Making the point that he was neither a politician nor a specialist in Cuba, Freidman described his team’s careful, scientific, fact-based quest to determine whether the Canadian diplomats had suffered any measurable brain injuries and, if so, what had caused them.

Based on a variety of tests, including innovative brain scanning techniques developed at the university, Friedman says there is no doubt the diplomats suffered a form of brain injury and that those injuries were consistent with exposure to a particular kind of toxin used in insecticides.

The next step was to figure out how they’d been exposed.

With the help of “Dr. Google,” the team quickly discovered Cuba had engaged in a widespread, highly publicized fumigation program in 2016 and 2017 to prevent the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

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A check of embassy records showed the Canadian diplomats’ offices and residences had been sprayed frequently and intensely during this period.

While Friedman said more research is needed, he says the best evidence now suggests a clear connection between the fumigation and the illnesses reported.

Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, Josefina Vidal, who was in the audience for Friedman’s presentation, said Cuban scientists see Friedman’s works “as a serious effort to try to explain what might have been the UK cause of the health symptoms from a scientific point of view, not from science fiction speculations out of this world.”

She added Cuban scientists “have been collaborating with the Canadian research effort and are willing to continue doing so. In close coordination with the Canadian side, our scientists will conduct some research to try to see if the theory advanced by Dr. Freidman can be confirmed with additional data.”

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