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US issues China health alert after brain injury to consular employee

The consulate employee was working in Guangzhou, southern China. Photo: PawelBienkowskiphotos 

The US has issued a health alert to US citizens in China after one of its consulate workers in the south of the country suffered a mild traumatic brain injury, similar to a string of mysterious medical problems among US diplomats in Cuba last year.

The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said that the US consular employee in Guangzhou suffered symptoms that were “very similar and entirely consistent with the medical indications of the Americans working in Havana”.

He told a congressional committee that a medical team was on the way to southern China and authorities were “working to figure out what took place both in Havana and Guangzhou”.

Heather Nauert, the state department spokeswoman, said a medical team would be in Guangzhou early next week “to conduct baseline medical evaluations of all consulate Guangzhou employees who request it”.

“The department is taking this incident very seriously and is working to determine the cause and impact of the incident,” said a US embassy spokeswoman, Jinnie Lee. “The Chinese government has assured us they are also investigating and taking appropriate measures.”

The embassy said it was not aware of anyone with similar symptoms elsewhere in China, within or outside of the diplomatic community.

The employee working in Guangzhou, whose symptoms of “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure” lasted from late 2017 through to April 2018, had been sent to the US for medical evaluation.

On 18 May, according to Nauert, the Beijing embassy “learned that the clinical findings of this evaluation were similar to what might be seen in a patient with head concussion or mild traumatic brain injury”. Following that diagnosis, a health alert was issued to US citizens in China on Wednesday.

The embassy advised Americans experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena accompanied by unusual sounds or piercing noises” not to attempt to locate the source of the sound but to move away from the location, and seek medical help.

Last year, doctors evaluating more than 20 US government workers in Cuba found brain abnormalities in the employees who reported ear-ringing and hearing loss after experiencing loud sounds. However, some doctors and scientists said they believed the situation was being spun for political gain.

Investigators at one point suspected a “sonic attack” or use of an electromagnetic weapon. The US last year withdrew embassy staff and advised Americans not to visit the country, pushing US-Cuba relations to a low.

In May, the US formally complained to China over allegations Chinese nationals had pointed military-grade lasers at a US military aircraft near Djibouti, where both countries have bases, causing two US pilots to suffer mild eye injuries. China denies the accusations.

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