US blockade of Cuba harms medical patients in both countries

Scientists in Cuba believe that the advances they have made in the health and technology sectors should be used to save and improve lives beyond the country’s borders. That’s why the island nation has developed important scientific and medical partnerships with organizations and governments around the world, including in Mexico, Palestine, Angola, Colombia, Iran and Brazil. However, such collaborations are difficult due to the six-decade-old blockade imposed on Cuba by the United States.

By Natalia Marques

At a conference “Building our future”, held in Havana in November 2022, which brought together young people from Cuba and the United States, scientists from the Cuban Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM) said during a presentation that the blockade harms the population of the United States United too. By lifting sanctions against Cuba, the scientists argued, the people of the United States could gain access to life-saving treatments being developed in Cuba, especially against diseases like diabetes, which ravage working-class communities each year.

A cure for diabetes

Cuban scientists have developed a lung cancer vaccine and an innovative diabetes treatment. The new diabetes treatment, Heberprot-P, developed by the Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), can reduce leg amputations by more than four times in people with diabetic foot ulcers. The medicine contains a recombinant human epidermal growth factor that, when injected into the foot ulcer, accelerates its healing process, reducing diabetes-related amputations. And yet, despite the drug being registered in Cuba since 2006 and in several other countries since then, people in the United States are unable to access Heberprot-P.

Diabetes was the eighth leading cause of death in the United States in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killing more than 100,000 patients that year. “Foot ulcers are among the most common complications of patients with diabetes,” which can progress to lower limb amputations, according to a report by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Each year, approximately 73,000 “non-traumatic lower limb amputations” are performed on people with diabetes in the United States. . Many point to racial economic disparities and systemic medical racism as the reason for this.

“If you go into low-income African-American neighborhoods, it’s a war zone… You see people riding around in wheelchairs,” said Dr. Dean Schillinger, professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, told KHN. According to the KHN article, “Amputations are considered a ‘mega-disparity’ and trump nearly all other health disparities by race and ethnicity.”

The life expectancy of a patient with post-diabetic lower limb amputation is significantly reduced, according to several reports. “[P]patients with diabetes-related amputations are at high risk of mortality, with a five-year survival rate of 40 to 48 percent, regardless of the etiology of the amputation.” Heberprot-P could help tens of thousands of patients avoid such amputations, however, due to the blockade, US patients cannot access this treatment. People in the US have an interest in dismantling the US blockade of Cuba.

“So after five years [post-amputation], that’s the best you can live, and we’re preventing that from happening,” said Rydell Alvarez Arzola, a CIM researcher, in a presentation given to American and Cuban youth during the conference in Havana. “And this is also something that can bring our two peoples together [in Cuba and the U.S.] together to fight… to eliminate [the blockade].”

Cuban health care under lockdown

Perhaps one of Cuba’s proudest achievements is a world-renowned healthcare system that has thrived despite economic devastation and a 60-year blockade.

After the fall of Cuba’s main trading partner, the Soviet Union, in 1991, the island experienced a 35% drop in GDP in three years, blackouts and a precipitous drop in caloric intake. However, despite these overwhelming challenges, Cuba has never wavered in its commitment to providing universal health care. Universal health care, or access to free, quality health care for all, is a longstanding demand from grassroots movements in the United States that has never been implemented largely due to the lucrative model of the health care industry and huge corporate interests in the sector. .

While other nations adopted neoliberal austerity measures that drastically cut social services in the 1980s and 1990s, Cuba’s public health spending increased by 13% from 1990 to 1994. Cuba successfully increased its doctor-patient-to-physician ratio to every 202 Cubans in the mid-1990s, a statistic much better than the US ratio of one doctor for every 300 people, according to a 2004 census.

As the blockade enters its seventh decade, Cuba is not only championing universal health care, but is also continuing to be at the forefront of scientific developments around the world.

This was evident during the COVID-19 crisis. Cuba, faced with the impossibility of buying vaccines developed by US pharmaceutical companies due to the US blockade, has developed five vaccines. Not only has the nation achieved its goal of creating one of the most effective COVID-19 vaccines, it has also launched the first mass vaccination campaign for children ages two to 18 in September 2021.

Share knowledge without restrictions

Despite its achievements, the Cuban health system still faces serious, life-threatening limitations due to the economic blockade. The CIM, for example, has struggled to find international companies willing to provide vital services for them. Claudia Plasencia, a researcher at CIM, explained during the conference that CIM had signed a contract with a German gene synthesis company, which later withdrew because it had signed a new contract with an American company. “They couldn’t keep processing our samples, they couldn’t keep doing business with Cuba,” Plasencia said.

Arzola explained how it is virtually impossible to purchase top-of-the-line equipment due to trade restrictions. “A flow cytometer is a machine that costs a quarter of a million dollars… even if my lab has money, I can’t buy the best machine in the world, which is from the United States, everybody knows that,” he said. Even if CIM purchases such a machine from a third party, it cannot utilize US repair services. “I can’t buy these machines even if I have money, because I wouldn’t be able to fix them. You can’t spend a quarter of a million dollars every six months [buying a new machine]… even knowing that [machine] it’s what’s best for your patients.”

I spoke with Marianniz Diaz, a young scientist at CIM. When asked what we in the United States could do to help the CIM scientists, her response was blunt: “The main thing you can do is lift the blockade.”

“I would like us to have unrestricted interaction, so [Cuba and the U.S.] can share our science, our products, [and] our knowledge,” she said.

This article was jointly produced by Peoples Dispatch and Globetrotter.


Natalia Marques is a Peoples Dispatch writer, organizer and graphic designer based in New York.

US blockade of Cuba harms medical patients in both countries

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