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  1. One of the weirdest medical tales to unravel in recent years—the wave of U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba stricken by unexplained, concussion-like symptoms as well as hearing loss—has taken another turn. A group of researchers in Canada say they’ve found evidence that pesticides, not sonic energy weapons, might be to blame for sufferers’ agony. Much of the attention over the mysterious ailment, now known as “Havana syndrome,” has focused on the U.S. diplomats and their families who first became ill in 2016. Some of these patients are said to have heard strange noises right before their symptoms emerged, which led to speculation by some scientists and even U.S. officials that they had been attacked by exotic, possibly sonic weapons—alleged attacks that some speculated were instigated or aided by Cuba. The Cuban government has disavowed any responsibility for these cases as well as shut down the sonic weapon theory. And despite some very disputed, U.S. government-sponsored research suggesting that Havana syndrome patients have experienced unique brain changes that could have been caused by something unprecedented like a new weapon, there still isn’t any concrete, single explanation for what may have happened to the dozens who reported symptoms. Like the U.S., Canada has been conducting their own investigation of the syndrome in their diplomats, with the help of outside researchers. But they’ve come to very different conclusions. Last week, Radio-Canada’s investigative TV program Enquête obtained a draft copy of the study, which has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. On Tuesday, the lead author of the study, Alon Friedman, a neuroscientist at Dalhousie University, spoke to Buzzfeed News about the preliminary results. “We actually found a specific brain region that was affected and that was the clue to everything else,” Friedman told Buzzfeed News. Friedman and his team compared Canadian patients who were given an extensive medical check-up soon after they returned from Havana to those who were studied one to 19 months later, as well to a control group of unaffected people who never lived in Havana. Some were also tested twice, before and after their trips to Havana. One of the clearest differences was that few Canadian patients reported hearing any strange sounds before their symptoms occurred, while no one reported any hearing loss. But the brains of some patients did show signs of damage in regions that process an enzyme called cholinesterase, including regions like the brain stem that help regulate our sense of consciousness and sleep. There’s a shortlist of neurotoxins that are known to affect these regions and disturb the processing of cholinesterase, the authors wrote, and they include several types of pesticides. Sure enough, they found some of these pesticides in people’s systems. When they looked at fumigation records for the Havana embassy, they also saw there had been increased spraying in response to the mosquito-spread Zika virus, which at the time had recently emerged in the Americas for the first time ever. And perhaps most importantly, there was also a link between those who got the sickest and those whose homes had been fumigated the most. The team’s theory is admittedly based on circumstantial evidence. And according to Douglas Fields, a neuroscientist who has independently investigated the cases, there’s still the possibility that more than one natural cause may ultimately explain these patients’ symptoms. In fact, given how the cases among affected Canadians are so different from the U.S. cases in presentation, it’d be strange if the answer didn’t turn out to be multiple choice. But at the very least, it’s a theory that can be further studied without delving into the world of Tom Clancy. “The pesticide theory is plausible but not proven, and the study has many weaknesses,” Fields told Gizmodo via email. “However, it’s good to see this attempt at a reasonable diagnosis, instead of the past approach of assuming the existence of a new energy beam neuroweapon. This paper is not the last word.” According to Buzzfeed News, officials in both the U.S. and Cuba are looking into the new findings and remain in communication with the Canadian government. Source
  2. These recent confirmed cases demonstrate that these incidents are still ongoing' A view of the Canadian Embassy in Havana, Cuba, where a 14th Canadian has now fallen ill to an unexplained illness. The Cuban government is criticizing Canada's decision on Wednesday to halve its embassy staff after a 14th Canadian fell ill to an unexplained illness in Havana. Josefina Vidal, Cuba's ambassador to Canada, says the reducing embassy personnel in Havana will do nothing to help find the cause of a mysterious ailment that has affected Canadian and American diplomats. Canada and Cuba have been co-operating to find the cause to the mysterious set of circumstances, but the Americans have criticized the Cubans over the matter, walking back major improvements in their strained relations that had begun under former U.S. president Barack Obama. Vidal said that "Canada's decision made public today is incomprehensible." She said the decision will "not help find answers to the health symptoms reported by Canadian diplomats, and which will have an impact on the relations." Canada's decision comes after a new report concerning a diplomat who arrived in Cuba in the summer who was found to have symptoms on Dec. 29 of the mysterious illness that causes problems including nausea, dizziness, headaches and trouble concentrating. The fact that a recently arrived diplomat reported symptoms underscores the likelihood that the undiagnosed ailment that has afflicted Canadian and American diplomats is still a threat. Canadian government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that Global Affairs Canada will consider halving its diplomatic presence in the Cuban capital, potentially reducing its representation by eight people from the current 16 serving in the Havana embassy. The remaining diplomats will deliver full consular services but other programs will have to be adjusted in the coming weeks. 'Frustrating' The move follows the downsizing in April that determined that diplomats posted to Cuba would not be accompanied by families and dependents due to the uncertainty. In November, a 13th Canadian reported symptoms, sparking a new round of medical testing that turned up the next case in December. The November case was the first to be reported since October 2017, officials said. "These recent confirmed cases demonstrate that these incidents are still ongoing," said one official. The RCMP is leading an investigation into the cause of the ailments that have affected both serving diplomats and family members and have also struck several American diplomats in Havana. Canadian authorities say they are getting good co-operation from the Cuban government, which is also frustrated by the incidents. "Overall, we have a multifaceted relationship with Cuba, which is very positive and continues," said another official. 'Crickets' The Cuban envoy said that is not how her government sees it. "This behaviour favours those who in the United States use this issue to attack and denigrate Cuba," said Vidal. The Cuban government has said the Trump administration is using the issue to roll back new measures instituted by the Obama administration to re-engage with its Caribbean island neighbour after five decades of tensions dating back to the height of the Cold War. The U.S. withdrew most of its non-essential diplomatic staff in September 2017 but Canada did not. Officials said the government made assessments based on "evidence" in taking its various decisions to gradually reduce Canada's diplomatic footprint in Cuba, which hosts an average of one million sun-seeking Canadian tourists annually. "There is no evidence that Canadian travellers to Cuba are at risk," Global Affairs Canada said Wednesday, adding that travellers should continue to consult the government's travel advisories. Canadian officials say they are co-operating fully with their American counterparts but refused to say whether the fact the Cubans and Americans aren't getting along is having an effect on the search for the mysterious cause. Speculation has focused on some kind of acoustic or microwave assault, unknown contaminants and even chirping crickets. Officials have all but ruled out environmental factors — such as toxins in the air, soil or water — and no longer suspect a sonic attack is to blame. Source
  3. The service will roll out nationwide by year-end, in Cuba, one of the least connected countries. People record videos with their mobile phones of a street musician's performance in Cuba. Communist-run Cuba has started providing internet on the mobile phones of select users as it aims to roll out the service nationwide by year-end, in a further step toward opening one of the Western Hemisphere’s least connected countries. Journalists at state-run news outlets were among the first this year to get mobile internet, provided by Cuba’s telecoms monopoly, as part of a wider campaign for greater internet access that new president Miguel Diaz-Canel has said should boost the economy and help Cubans defend their revolution. Analysts said broader web access will also ultimately weaken the government’s control of what information reaches people in the one-party island state that has a monopoly on the media. Cuba frowns on public dissent and blocks access to dissident websites. “It’s been a radical change,” said Yuris Norido, 39, who reports for several state-run news websites and the television. “I can now update on the news from wherever I am, including where the news is taking place.” Certain customers, including companies and embassies, have also been able to buy mobile data plans since December, according to the website of Cuban telecoms monopoly ETECSA, which has not broadly publicized the move. ETECSA has said it will expand mobile internet to all its 5 million mobile phone customers, nearly half of Cuba’s population, by the end of this year. ETECSA did not reply to a request for more details for this story. Whether because of a lack of cash, a long-running US trade embargo or concerns about the flow of information, Cuba has lagged behind in web access. Until 2013, internet was largely only available to the public at tourist hotels in Cuba. But the government has since then made increasing connectivity a priority, introducing cybercafes and outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots and slowly starting to hook up homes to the web. Long before he took office from Raul Castro in April, 58-year-old Diaz-Canel championed the cause. “We need to be able to put the content of the revolution online,” he told parliament last July as vice president, adding that Cubans could thus “counter the avalanche of pseudo-cultural, banal and vulgar content.” Cuba could use subsidies to encourage the use of government-sponsored applications, analysts said. Last month, ETECSA launched a free Cuba-only messaging application, Todus, while Cuba’s own intranet with a handful of government-approved sites and email is much cheaper to access than the wider internet. In a 2015 document about its internet strategy that leaked, the Cuban government said it aimed to connect at least half of homes by 2020 and 60 percent of phones. But many Cubans are skeptical. ETECSA president Mayra Arevich told state-run media in December it had connected just 11,000 homes last year. “I’ve been many times to the ETECSA shop to ask if they can give us home access,” said Yuneisy Galindo, 28, at a Wi-Fi hotspot on one of Havana’s thoroughfares. “But they tell us they still aren’t ready and will call us.” Most mobile phone owners have smartphones, although Cuba is only now installing 3G technology, even as most of Latin America has moved onto 4G, with 5G in its final testing phase. “This rollout will expand slowly at first and then more quickly, if the government is increasingly confident that it can control any political fallout,” said Cuba expert Ted Henken at Baruch College in the United States. The price could prove the biggest restriction for many, though. Hotspots currently charge $1 an hour, compared with an average state monthly wage of $30. It was not clear what most Cubans will pay for mobile internet, but ETECSA is charging companies and embassies $45 a month for four gigabytes. Source
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