Mysterious 'sound' sickness prompts warning for Americans in China

BEIJING — The State Department issued a health alert to U.S. citizens in China on Wednesday after an American government worker suffered a mild traumatic brain injury following mysterious "sensations of sound and pressure."

The warning follows the U.S. urging Americans not to visit Cuba following sonic incidents there that sickened 21 embassy staffers and their families, and comes as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Washington later Wednesday to discuss trade.

The employee in China, who was assigned to the southern port city of Guangzhou, "reported subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure," according to the alert.

"We do not currently know what caused the reported symptoms and we are not aware of any similar situations in China, either inside or outside of the diplomatic community," it continued.

"While in China, if you experience any unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena accompanied by unusual sounds or piercing noises, do not attempt to locate their source. Instead, move to a location where the sounds are not present."

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Impact of trade tensions between US and China

Head chef Liang Xin poses with a piece of beef imported from the U.S. in the kitchen at Wolfgang's, a high-end steak house in East Beijing's Sanlitun district, China, April 6, 2018. Liang said U.S. beef has always been limited in China, so he doesn't know how customers would react if the restaurant has to raise prices.

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Liu Anqi rolls dough in flour made from imported grain at the baking studio she runs with friends, in Beijing, China, April 12, 2018. Liu has just opened a bakery in Beijing with her friend. She also teaches customers how to make cakes with a brand of flour that uses only wheat from the United States and Canada. "Flour is one of the most important ingredients in baking and its quality varies with different brands," Liu said, adding that finding a new brand would be time-consuming and higher taxes on this wheat would force her to raise cake prices and tuition fees, which could turn customers away. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A detail of the Harley-Davidson brand name is photographed on the motorcycle of Guo Qingshan in his village outside Beijing, China, April 7, 2018. "I love the sound of the engine and the muscle of the motor. When I ride it, I feel free and proud," Guo said. However, Guo has his limits. If prices rise, Guo said he wouldn't contemplate buying another Harley. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Fried vegetables are seen in the kitchen of the restaurant where chef Liu Ming works, in Beijing, China, April 11, 2018. Liu said the oil that his restaurant uses is produced with soybeans imported from the United States, and the business won't change the brand even if prices rise. "We use this oil because it gives the food a bright colour and does not leave a strange smell or taste," he said. "We don't know what will happen to our dishes if we change the oil."

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Xie Guoqiang, who runs the Vin Place wine and liquors store, poses for a photograph inside the shop in Beijing, China, April 10, 2018. Xie said in an interview that the tariffs would have little impact on his business, as the shop mostly imports wine and liquors from France, Chile, Austria and Argentina.

(REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

A bottle of Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey is seen on a shelf at the Vin Place wine and liquors store in Beijing, China April 10, 2018. Xie Guoqiang, who runs Vin Place, said in an interview that the tariffs would have little impact on his business, as the shop mostly imports wine and liquors from France, Chile, Austria and Argentina.

(REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Liu Ming, a chef at a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing, poses for a picture at the back door of the kitchen where he works in Beijing, China, April 11, 2018. Liu said the oil that his restaurant uses is produced with soybeans imported from the United States, and the business won't change the brand even if prices rise. "We use this oil because it gives the food a bright colour and does not leave a strange smell or taste," he said. "We don't know what will happen to our dishes if we change the oil." 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Liu Anqi uses flour made from imported grain at the baking studio she runs with friends, in Beijing, China, April 12, 2018. Liu has just opened a bakery in Beijing with her friend. She also teaches customers how to make cakes with a brand of flour that uses only wheat from the United States and Canada. "Flour is one of the most important ingredients in baking and its quality varies with different brands," Liu said, adding that finding a new brand would be time-consuming and higher taxes on this wheat would force her to raise cake prices and tuition fees, which could turn customers away. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A bottle of oil is seen in the kitchen of the restaurant where chef Liu Ming works, in Beijing, China, April 11, 2018. Liu said the oil that his restaurant uses is produced with soybeans imported from the United States, and the business won't change the brand even if prices rise. "We use this oil because it gives the food a bright colour and does not leave a strange smell or taste," he said. "We don't know what will happen to our dishes if we change the oil." 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Zang Yi poses for a picture as her Tesla car is charging at a charging point in Beijing, China, April 13, 2018. Zang said if the trade tensions resulted in pricier U.S. imports, she wouldn't consider American brands when the time comes to buy a new car. "With the tariff, I would have to pay tax of 100,000 yuan to 200,000 yuan if I were to buy a new Tesla," she said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Zang Yi charges her Tesla car at a charging point in Beijing, China, April 13, 2018. Zang said if the trade tensions resulted in pricier U.S. imports, she wouldn't consider American brands when the time comes to buy a new car. "With the tariff, I would have to pay tax of 100,000 yuan to 200,000 yuan if I were to buy a new Tesla," she said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A Chinese woman tastes wine during a wine seminar in Beijing, China, April 14, 2018.

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Shan Yuliang, salesperson at a cigarette and wine shop, poses with a carton of Marlboro cigarettes in Beijing, China, April 8, 2018. "The moment I saw the news about the trade war on the internet, I felt something big was coming. Previously I would not think about what brand to buy. Now I will give it a second thought and avoid buying American products to defend my country," Shan said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Wine tasting teacher Li Yangang poses for a picture during a wine seminar in Beijing, China, April 14, 2018. Li said in an interview that reduced sales of American wine in China would not hurt the local market because of its relatively small market share. "Australian wine and French wine would have a bigger impact," he said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Cartons of Marlboro cigarettes are seen stacked up on a shelf between Chinese cigarettes at a cigarette and wine shop in Beijing, China, April 8, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Student He Bingzhang lights a Marlboro cigarette in Beijing, China, April 8, 2018. "I don't think the trade war would change my behaviour. I don't smoke a lot, probably one pack a month. Even if it costs 100 yuan, I would still buy Marlboro because it is affordable," He said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Student He Bingzhang poses for a picture as he smokes a Marlboro cigarette in Beijing, China, April 8, 2018. "I don't think the trade war would change my behaviour. I don't smoke a lot, probably one pack a month. Even if it costs 100 yuan, I would still buy Marlboro because it is affordable," He said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Guo Qingshan poses on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in his village outside Beijing, China, April 7, 2018. "I love the sound of the engine and the muscle of the motor. When I ride it, I feel free and proud," Guo said. However, Guo has his limits. If prices rise, Guo said he wouldn't contemplate buying another Harley. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Beef imported from the U.S. is seen at Wolfgang's, a high-end steak house in East Beijing's Sanlitun district, China, April 6, 2018. A 15-kg whole cut of beef from the United States is around 20 percent more expensive than its Australian counterpart, said Daniel Sui, deputy general manager at Wolfgang's. "Customers like U.S. beef because it tastes juicy and tender, but Wolfgang's only sells around seven to eight pieces of U.S. imported beef steak each day," Sui said. "The limited supply is because the Chinese government bans feed additives and only 5 percent of U.S. beef is qualified for export." 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

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Jinnie Lee, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said the employee reported the symptoms from late 2017 through last month and was eventually taken to the U.S. for further evaluation.

"On May 18, the embassy learned that the clinical findings of this evaluation matched mild traumatic brain injury," she said. "The department is taking this incident very seriously and is working to determine the cause."

The Chinese government has promised to investigate, she added.

Cuba has repeatedly denied any involvement in the incidents reported in Havana, and in September invited the FBI to Cuban capital to investigate. But neither government has determined who is responsible. "Some very bad things happened in Cuba," President Donald Trump said at the time. "They did some bad things."

The tourism warning has prompted a drop in visitors to Cuba following a record year in 2017.

Guangzhou, which has a population of about 14.5 million, lies across the Pearl River from Hong Kong.

Mac William Bishop reported from Beijing, and Alastair Jamieson reported from London.

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