US embassy staff in Colombia suffering from Havana Syndrome ahead of Blinken's visit

Havana Syndrome symptoms include cognitive difficulties, ringing in the head, and memory loss

The U.S. Embassy in Colombia is investigating several cases of the mysterious neurological affliction known as Havana Syndrome, U.S. officials said, days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit.

In emails to embassy personnel, sent by Ambassador Philip Goldberg and others and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the State Department vowed to address the issue "seriously, with objectivity and with sensitivity" as they work to determine who is affected.

At least five American families have come down with ailments, said people familiar with the matter in Bogotá, the Colombian capital.

Embassy staff were initially alerted to "an unexplained health incident" via email in mid-September. A later email, dated Oct. 1, informed embassy personnel that the regional security office was investigating "additional Anomalous Health Incidents," the U.S. government’s term for the illness.

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The October email added that "there is no stigma to reporting any health-related incident in which the underlying causes are not known."

The American Embassy in Bogotá is among the U.S.’s largest in the world, with robust intelligence and antidrug operations working to thwart cocaine trafficking operations in the region and contend with the leftist regime in neighboring Venezuela. Word that people in the embassy had been targeted has deeply concerned workers in the sprawling American compound, which is on a major thoroughfare not far from Bogotá’s airport.

One U.S. official said there were at least two known cases, both American citizens, but other people who know about the cases said several more people are thought to have been affected. This official said that at least one family was flown out of the country for treatment and concerns have grown more serious in recent days.

"There was definitely a family including a minor hit," said a person with knowledge of the situation in the embassy. "Adults sign up for what they sign up for and the risks that come with it…. Targeting or even incidentally hitting kids should be a hard red line."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks while meeting with Philippines Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks while meeting with Philippines Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool) (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Mr. Blinken is expected to visit Bogotá next week as part of a quick Latin America tour, several officials said. The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá declined to comment.

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State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to comment on reports of Havana Syndrome cases in Bogotá, citing privacy. He said that the State Department is working to ensure that all individuals receive the "prompt care they need" when they believe they are experiencing symptoms, as well as taking broader steps, in terms of communication, care, detection and protection of its workforce.

If verified, the attacks would be the latest that coincide with overseas travel by senior U.S. officials. In August, Vice President Kamala Harris delayed her arrival in Vietnam after reports of an incident targeting a U.S. official there. Last month, an aide traveling in India with Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns reported symptoms and received medical attention, a U.S. official said.

The unexplained health incidents are known as Havana Syndrome because they first surfaced among U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers in Cuba in late 2016. The symptoms include dizziness, headache, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, cognitive difficulties, ringing in the head, and memory loss.

Since then, attacks also have been reported in China, Austria, Germany and Serbia, where the CIA recently evacuated an intelligence officer who suffered serious injuries consistent with Havana Syndrome. While about 200 U.S. government employees have been affected, officials caution that a precise count is difficult to determine because each case must be medically verified and some individuals’ symptoms end up having other explanations.

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Five years after the first symptoms emerged, the U.S. government has yet to determine who is behind the attacks and what mechanism or mechanisms are being used.

Some of the afflicted families initially thought they had altitude sickness, since Bogotá is located more than 8,600 feet above sea level, a diplomat in Bogotá familiar with the matter said. Now, some of the families are living in hotels as the embassy runs tests on their apartments.

Another person who knows details about the cases said that intelligence officials are among those affected. The person was unclear how many had been affected, but said it wasn’t a large number of people.

The victims of what are presumed to be attacks have heard grinding sounds or felt vibrations in their heads, puzzling officials who have still been unable to pinpoint the source. "The whole situation is bizarre," the person said.