THE American employees of the US embassy in Guangzhou, China, are the latest diplomats to be sent home to the United States after suffering from a mysterious bout of illness similar to that experienced by their colleagues in Havana, Cuba.
The US State Department insisted on the diplomats’ return after confirming one government employee had “suffered a medical incident” that resembles a brain injury in the southern Chinese city, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement on Wednesday.
The department has deployed a team to screen employees and family members at its consulate there.
“As a result of the screening process so far, the department has sent a number of individuals for further evaluation and a comprehensive assessment of their symptoms and findings in the United States,” Nauert said.
“Medical professionals will continue to conduct full evaluations to determine the cause of the reported symptoms and whether the findings are consistent with those noted in previously affected government personnel or possibly completely unrelated,” she said.
According to the New York Times, consulate worker Mark Lenzi and his wife heard strange noises over the course of several months before falling ill with what they described as neurological symptoms.
Lenzi and his family, including his three-year-old son who was also affected, were flown home to the US on Wednesday.
Speaking to The Washington Post that same day, Lenzi described the sound as being like “marbles bouncing and hitting a floor then rolling on an incline with a static sound.”
Last year, 24 US government employees and family members in Cuba displayed the same symptoms, which were similar to those related to concussions and mild traumatic brain injury, according to the State Department.
The illnesses among the American diplomats stationed in Havana heightened tensions between the old Cold War foes. The State Department brought many embassy staffers home and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States.
According to Washington Post editor Christian Caryl, the latest incident in Guangzhou threatens to do the same at a time when US relations with China are particularly fraught.
“The Trump administration has been pressing Beijing hard on trade, even as it has been relying on the Chinese to help bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table,” Caryl said. “A widening scandal involving the possible mistreatment of US diplomats couldn’t come at a worse time.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement on Tuesday saying the department established a task force last month “to direct a multi-agency response to the unexplained health incidents.”
“The precise nature of the injuries suffered by the affected personnel, and whether a common cause exists for all cases, has not yet been established,” Pompeo said.
Additional reporting by Reuters.