Scans on US diplomats in Cuba show ‘something happened to the brains’

Dr. Mitchell Valdes-Sosa, General Director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center, speaks during a press conference in Havana, Cuba, on July 23, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 24 July 2019

Scans on US diplomats in Cuba show ‘something happened to the brains’

  • Tablada urged the White House to stop using the issue “as a pretext to impose increasingly aggressive new sanctions” against the Cuban people

WASHINGTON: Brain scans of about 40 US diplomats injured in mysterious circumstances in Cuba reveal visible differences compared to those in a control group, researchers who analyzed them said Tuesday.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and led by professors at the University of Pennsylvania, does not draw any conclusions about the cause of the symptoms suffered by the diplomats from late 2016 into May 2018.
But the MRIs of the patients confirm that “something happened to the brains of these people,” Ragini Verma, a professor of radiology at UPenn and co-author of the study, told AFP.
“It’s not imagined,” she said. “All I can say is that there is a truth to be found.”
Verma added: “Whatever happened was not due to a pre-existing condition, because we test for that.”
From late 2016, diplomats posted in Havana and some of their family members suffered unexplained symptoms ranging from poor balance and vertigo to lack of coordination, unusual eye movements, anxiety and what victims called a “cognitive fog.”
The United States recalled most of its diplomatic personnel from the Cuban capital in September 2017.
Some of them have recovered and returned to work, but others are still undergoing rehab, according to Verma.
The US government never publicly explained the cause of the mysterious illnesses. It neither confirmed nor denied the possibility of attacks using some sort of acoustic weapon, as some US media reported, without offering proof.
Cuba has denied all responsibility for the incidents, which also affected at least 14 Canadian citizens. Ottawa also ended up recalling most of its diplomats from Havana in January.
At the request of the State Department, 44 diplomats and family members were sent from mid-2017 to UPenn’s brain trauma center to undergo MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) exams.
Researchers compared those results with scans from 48 comparable subjects in two control groups. The differences are statistically significant and relate to the brain’s white matter as well as the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls movement.
A State Department spokesman welcomed “the medical community’s discussion on this incredibly complex issue. The Department’s top priority remains the safety, security, and well-being of its staff.”
Verma said it was vital to follow the diplomats and their families over time “to see whether these changes evolve or change.”

Responding to the report, Havana again denied all responsibility in the affair.
The study by the UPenn professors “does not allow clear and final scientific conclusions to be reached,” said Mitchell Valdes-Sosa, head of the Neuroscience Center of Cuba.
Valdes-Sosa told reporters that the study “does not show, contrary to what has been speculated... that the group of diplomats suffered brain damage during their stay in Cuba.”
A senior foreign ministry official in charge of US affairs, Johana Tablada, said that as of now “no evidence exists of any type of attack” against the US diplomats, and called on Washington to stop using that term in such an “irresponsible” way.
Tablada urged the White House to stop using the issue “as a pretext to impose increasingly aggressive new sanctions” against the Cuban people.


Pakistan takes steps to turn locust infestation into farming benefit

Updated 04 August 2020

Pakistan takes steps to turn locust infestation into farming benefit

  • Pakistan’s worst locust infestation in about 30 years started in June 2019

ISLAMABAD: First the idea was to feed them to chickens, now the plan is to grind them into fertilizer — as more locust swarms threaten Pakistan’s crops, a project aims to test ways of killing and using the voracious pests for the benefit of local communities.
Pakistan’s worst locust infestation in about 30 years started in June 2019, when the insects came over from Iran in a surge climate experts link to changing conditions conducive to the spread of the insects.
This summer, the locusts are breeding locally, says the Pakistani government, which is trying to head off another attack by spraying pesticides on newborn locusts — called hoppers because they cannot fly — in desert areas on the Indian border.
But worries that the pesticides could be harmful to plants, animals and people have motivated researchers to seek chemical-free methods of cutting the locust population.
“We wanted to come up with a locust control project that would be environmentally friendly and sustainable,” said biotechnologist Johar Ali.
For Ali and his colleague Muhammad Khurshid, who was working for the food ministry at the time, the answer was chicken feed.
In February, the state-run Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) sent Ali and Khurshid, now with the privatization ministry, to implement a three-day trial in Punjab province in eastern Pakistan.
During an infestation this spring, villagers in Okara district plucked locusts — which are largely immobile at night — off trees in a nearby forest, gathering about 20 tons of the flying insects.
The project team bought the bugs for 20 Pakistani rupees a kilo, then sold them to a nearby processing plant, which dried them and mixed them into chicken feed, Ali said.
The aim was to help control the locust surge in forested and heavily populated areas, where widespread pesticide spraying is not possible, while also generating income for communities hit by the swarms.
“It’s an out-of-box solution,” Ali said. “It could easily be scaled up in our populated rural areas. Yes, in our desert areas where locusts breed, chemical sprays make sense — but not in areas where we have farms with crops, livestock and people.”
In June, the government shifted the focus from chicken feed to compost, after PARC decided fertilizer was a safer and more feasible use for the insects.
Last month, communities living in the desert areas of Cholistan, Tharparkar, Nara and Thal were trained on how to catch locusts as they head there to breed for the season.
The next step is to look at how to turn the pests into organic fertilizer, explained PARC chairman Muhammad Azeem Khan.
By providing a “slow and continuous” release of nutrients, the compost could help farmers increase their yields by 30 percent and cut their use of chemical fertilizer in half, he said.
Pakistan’s current locust problem started with what Muhammad Tariq Khan, technical director of the food security ministry’s plant protection department, called a “climate change-induced international locust crisis” in Yemen and East Africa.
“Two big cyclones in 2018 dumped enough water in a desert area called the Empty Quarter in the Arabian Peninsula for three generations of locusts to grow undetected,” he said.
Torn by civil war, Yemen was unable to focus on exterminating the pests, which lay their eggs beneath the soil, and so “they came up like a bomb,” Khan said.
July’s monsoon rains arrived 10 days earlier than usual in Pakistan, creating moist soil conditions favorable for the locusts to breed in the border desert area, Khan said.
Swarms are also expected to arrive soon in Pakistan from Somalia, he said.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates losses to agriculture from locusts this year could be as high as 353 billion rupees ($2.2 billion) for winter crops like wheat and potatoes and about 464 billion rupees for summer crops.
“You can’t eradicate locusts, but you can control them. In this situation we have to rely on chemicals,” Khan said.
So far, insecticide-spraying operations have been carried out in 32 affected districts — both desert and cropping areas — spread over about 1 million hectares.
Pakistan’s pesticide-spraying operations had made it impossible to ensure the locusts eaten by poultry would be chemical-free, said PARC’s Azeem Khan.
“Sprayed locusts, if used as feed, are a threat to human health,” he said.
The new project, which has been approved by the National Locust Control Center, will entail buying living and dead locusts from local communities at 25 rupees per kilo.
The bugs will then be mixed with bio-waste such as manure and vegetation to turn them into compost, Azeem Khan said.
PARC is now analyzing samples of dead and decomposing locusts that have been sprayed with insecticide to assess the levels of chemical residue on them, he noted.
The PARC chairman said the government had earmarked $15 million for the project, with just over half going to the communities and the rest toward compost-processing.