US State Department defends handling of 'Havana Syndrome'

WASHINGTON, Oct 14 (Reuters) - The State Department on Thursday defended its handling of so-called Havana Syndrome health complaints, after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators said they were concerned the unexplained ailments were not being taken seriously enough.

Around 200 U.S. diplomats, officials and family members overseas are believed to have been struck by the mysterious ailment - with symptoms including migraines, nausea, memory lapses and dizziness.

It first came to public attention in 2016 after dozens of diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, complained of the sickness, but officials are yet to reach a firm conclusion of the syndrome's cause or whether an adversary is responsible.

U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, along with other senators, including fellow Democrat and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez and the committee's ranking Republican, James Risch, wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the issue on Thursday.

They urged him to announce a successor to Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, the official who had been leading the State Department's investigation into the incidents but is resigning.

"We ask that you take this step now to demonstrate that the State Department does take this matter seriously, and is coordinating an appropriate agency-level response," the senators wrote.

State Department spokesman Ned Price responded to the letter during a regular press briefing, saying Blinken "has no higher priority than the health and the safety, and the security of our workforce and their family members and dependents." He added Blinken had met with sufferers of the syndrome and had taken steps to investigate the incidents.

For example, the State Department had sent teams of security engineers and occupational safety experts to inspect the locations where health incidents were reported, Price said.

"We take every single report of an anomalous health incident extraordinarily seriously," he added.

Blinken is set to travel to Bogota next week, according to the Colombian foreign ministry. At least five families connected to the U.S. embassy there have been affected by unexplained health incidents, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

Reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Sandra Maler

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