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U.S. Diplomats In China Exhibiting Signs Of Minor Brain Injury After Hearing Strange Sounds


First Cuba, now China. A medical mystery appears to be deepening. American diplomats in Guangzhou, China, are reporting strange symptoms, symptoms the State Department says are similar to those that would follow a concussion or minor traumatic brain injury. It's not clear yet whether this might be related to events in Cuba, where you'll recall diplomats have also fallen ill after saying they heard odd sounds.

Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times has been trying to get to the bottom of this, and he joins us now. Hey there.

STEVEN LEE MYERS: Hello. How are you?

KELLY: Hi. Fine, thank you. So describe the symptoms that we're talking about here and how many U.S. diplomats are reporting them.

MYERS: The symptoms we're talking about are sleeplessness, headaches, nausea, memory recall issues. They began late last year. And they were initially reported by one employee who experienced these beginning in late fall, and then it continued to the point that she sought medical help. And at that point, they evacuated her and determined that she suffered what had seemed to have been a concussion even though she had suffered no blow to the head.

Once that was announced, other people came forward in the consulate community and said that they, too, had had similar symptoms and/or had heard similar sounds that the first employee had reported. At this point, we don't know exactly how many have been affected or injured who are showing symptoms. But certainly a sizable number of the people who work in the consulate have come forward to seek evaluations.

KELLY: One of the developments this week is the State Department announced a health care task force that's going to study what's happening in China, try to figure out whether this is the same thing that was happening in Cuba and, notably, does not rule out that there may - emphasis on may - but that there may be other incidents in other places, other U.S. diplomatic consulates, embassies around the world.

MYERS: That's right. And I think that they're trying to piece together whether or not similar unexplained phenomena that may have been isolated could be part of the same phenomena that they've experienced here in China, as well as in Cuba.

KELLY: Well, what might be going on here? I described this as a medical mystery. What are the theories for what might be causing these symptoms?

MYERS: You know, increasingly, I was told they are looking at the Russians and some sort of directed surveillance device or even a possible tool to harass intelligence officers or diplomats working in places.

KELLY: That's fascinating that - the possibility that Russia may be involved here. May I ask when you say you're hearing that where you're hearing that from?

MYERS: The officials that we've talked to who have been looking into this...

KELLY: American officials?

MYERS: ...Have raised that as - yes - have raised that as a possibility. They don't know exactly what they're dealing with here, but the speculation since the events in Havana last year have been to look into whether or not there was some sort of device - or sonic attack, it's been called.

KELLY: Right. Sonic attacks is one possibility that's been put on the table. Some sort of toxin is another possibility. Some people are floating maybe this is mass hysteria. Bottom line is we don't know. What is China saying given that this latest twist is unfolding in China?

MYERS: When this was first announced, you know, they said they were willing to work with the United States to investigate this. And they reiterated that again today, but they also said that so far they've been unable to establish any evidence at all for what happened to these employees in Guangzhou.

KELLY: And bottom line, Chinese officials deny that this is any kind of offensive or intelligence operation, which is the same thing that we heard from officials in Cuba when these incidents were unfolding there.

MYERS: That's right. But clearly something is happening, and that's what officials are scrambling to try to figure out right now.

KELLY: All right, we're back to the line I opened with, a medical mystery that appears to be deepening. Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times, thanks very much.

MYERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.