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United States

US screens more American consulate staff in China over mystery health issues

The US State Department confirmed evacuating a number of government employees who experienced unexplained health issues like those that have hurt US personnel in Cuba

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 12:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 1:32am

A medical team was screening more Americans who work at the US consulate in southern China on Thursday as the State Department confirmed it had evacuated a number of government employees who experienced unexplained health issues like those that had beset US personnel in Cuba and once before in China.

The evacuation of workers in Guangzhou followed medical testing that indicated they might have been affected. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that “a number of individuals” had been brought to the US but didn’t say how many were affected or evacuated.

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A previous case in Guangzhou, disclosed last month, prompted the tests.

Nauert also said that remaining US government personnel and their families in Guangzhou would be able to request testing if they “noted concerning symptoms or wanted baseline screening”.

The incidents have raised fears the unexplained issues that started in Cuba in 2016 have expanded. The US government has deemed those incidents “specific attacks” on American workers but hasn’t publicly identified a cause or culprit.

Most of the incidents were accompanied by bizarre, unexplained sounds that initially led US investigators to suspect a sonic attack.

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Symptoms have included dizziness, headaches and an inability to concentrate.

The American government worker who previously was removed from China reported “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure”, the Guangzhou consulate reported last month.

Security guards outside the Guangzhou consulate on Thursday told reporters to leave the area and not to try to talk to consulate staff.

Asked about the latest incidents, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the US had not formally raised the matter with Beijing.

“If the US makes formal contact with us, China will continue necessary investigations in an earnest and responsible manner and maintain close communication and cooperation with the US,” Hua said at a regularly scheduled news conference.

Chinese officials earlier said that they had looked into last month’s case but came up with no clues about the cause of the symptoms.

The New York Times identified the latest American employee evacuated as Mark A. Lenzi, a security engineering officer at the consulate who left Wednesday night with his wife and two children.

Lenzi told the Times he lived in the same flat tower as the officer who had been evacuated in April and that he had suffered in recent months from what he called “neurological symptoms”.

Lenzi’s flat was in one of several high-rise buildings in The Canton Place, which features restaurants and galleries spaced around a central plaza.

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Another diplomat who reported symptoms was at a different upscale building near the consulate, the paper said.

A US official, who wasn’t authorised to discuss the situation publicly and requested anonymity, said that the evacuated American government workers were being brought for testing to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where doctors have been treating and studying patients who had been evacuated from the US embassy in Havana.

The preliminary findings of the medical reports on the 24 individuals affected in Cuba indicated that they had sensory and memory problems similar to brain dysfunctions often associated with concussions.

The Penn team said that the patients from Cuba experienced persistent disability, though rehabilitation therapy customised for them seemed to help.

In April, Canada also ordered families of diplomatic staff in Cuba to return home after mysterious health symptoms were detected in 10 Canadians stationed there.

Canada said that the 10 continued to show unexplained brain symptoms and that “medical information raised concerns for a new type of a possible acquired brain injury”.

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In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month about the first case in China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that China had “said all the right things and have demonstrated their willingness to help us identify the vector which led to this medical incident”.

The China incidents affect one of the most important of the seven US diplomatic outposts in the country. The Guangzhou consulate opened months after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington in 1979 and moved to its new purpose-built facility in 2013.

It serves four southern provinces with a combined population of more than 204 million and processes more than 1 million visa applications of all types annually. It is also the only US diplomatic installation in China authorised to process immigrant visas and handle adoptions.

People working in The Canton Place complex, a few kilometres from the consulate, said they were just hearing about the incidents, reflecting a lack of coverage in China’s state-controlled media.

Aled Williams, a British teacher at a kindergarten said Thursday that the reports sounded “sci-fi-ish.”

“Hard to get my head around how it works,” he said. “Better watch myself.”

Linda Chen, who runs a coffee shop in the area, said she was mystified as to why only certain people seemed to have been affected in an area known for its comfort and safety.

“It’s very strange. But I don’t feel that there’s something to be very afraid of because it’s probably a very special case,” Chen said.