Cuba: U.S. blockade hurts medical patients in both countries

The blockade of Cuba limits its ability to share its scientific and technological advances with the rest of the world.

Cuban scientists believe that the advances made in the health and technology sectors should be used to save and improve lives beyond the country's borders. For this reason, the island has established important scientific and medical alliances with organizations and governments around the world, including those of Mexico, Palestine, Angola, Colombia, Iran and Brazil. However, the blockade imposed on Cuba by the United States - which has lasted six decades - hinders these exchanges.

At the "Building our Future" meeting, which brought together young Cubans and Americans in Havana in November 2022, scientists from the Cuban Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM) stated in their presentation that the blockade also harms the American people. With the lifting of sanctions against Cuba, the scientists argued, the people of the United States could have access to life-saving treatments being developed on the island, especially against diseases such as diabetes, which ravages working-class communities every year.

A cure for diabetes

Cuban scientists have developed a vaccine against lung cancer and an innovative treatment for diabetes (Heberprot-P, developed by Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB)) that can reduce leg amputations in people with diabetic foot ulcers by more than four times. The drug contains a recombinant human epidermal growth factor that, when injected into a foot ulcer, accelerates its healing process, thus reducing amputations related to this condition. However - and despite the fact that the drug has been registered in Cuba and other countries since 2006 - Heberprot-P is not available to people in the United States.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, diabetes was the eighth leading cause of death in the United States in 2020, claiming the lives of more than 100,000 patients that year. "Foot ulcers are among the most common complications in patients with diabetes," potentially leading to lower limb amputations, according to a report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Some 73,000 "non-traumatic lower limb amputations" are performed each year on people with diabetes in the U.S. These amputations occur at a disproportionate rate depending on the skin color of the patients, with black and brown people with diabetes being much more likely to have these amputations. Many point to racial economic disparities and systemic medical racism as the cause.

"If you go to low-income African-American neighborhoods, it's a war zone ... You see people wheeling around in wheelchairs," Dean Schillinger, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, told KHN . According to the article, "amputations are considered a 'mega-disparity' and eclipse almost every other health disparity by race and ethnicity."

According to various reports , the life expectancy of a lower limb amputee patient following diabetes is reduced with difficulty. "[P]atients with diabetes-related amputations are at high risk of mortality, with a five-year survival rate of 40-48%, regardless of amputation etiology." Heberprot-P could help tens of thousands of patients avoid these amputations; however, due to the blockade, U.S. patients are unable to access this treatment. The U.S. population has a strong interest in dismantling the U.S. blockade of Cuba.

"So after five years [post-amputation], that's as long as you can live, and we're preventing that from happening," said Rydell Alvarez Arzola, a CIM researcher, in a presentation given to U.S. and Cuban youth during the conference in Havana. "And that's also something that could unite our two peoples [in Cuba and the United States] to fight ... to eliminate (the blockade)."

Cuban health under blockade

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 the Soviet Union in 1991 - Cuba's main trading partner - the island suffered a 35% decline in GDP in three years, blackouts and a plummeting caloric intake. Yet despite these daunting challenges, Cuba never wavered in its commitment to provide universal healthcare. Universal healthcare, or access to free, quality healthcare for all, is a long-standing demand of U.S. popular movements, which has never materialized due in large part to the for-profit model of the healthcare industry and the enormous corporate interests in the sector.

While other nations enacted neoliberal austerity measures - which cut social services in the 1980s and 1990s - Cuba's public spending on health increased by 13% between 1990 and 1994. In the mid-1990s, Cuba increased its physician-to-patient ratio to one doctor for every 202 Cubans, a statistic far better than that of the United States, with one doctor for every 300 people, according to a 2004 census.

At the beginning of the seventh decade of the blockade, Cuba not only maintains universal health care, but continues to be at the forefront of scientific advances on a global scale.

This was patented during the COVID-19 crisis. Faced with the impossibility of acquiring vaccines developed by U.S. pharmaceutical companies due to the blockade, Cuba presented five vaccines. The nation not only modified its goal to create one of the most effective vaccines against COVID-19 , but also launched, in September 2021, the first mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 for children aged two to 18 years .

Unrestricted knowledge sharing

Despite its achievements, Cuban health continues to face serious life-threatening constraints due to the economic blockade. The CIM, for example, has had difficulty finding international companies willing to carry out vital services for them. Claudia Plasencia, a researcher at the Center, explained during the conference that the CIM had signed a contract with a German gene synthesis company that then backed out because it had signed a new contract with a U.S. company. "We could no longer process our samples, we could no longer do business with Cuba," Plasencia said.

Arzola explained how it is practically impossible to acquire high-end equipment because of trade restrictions. "A flow cytometer is a machine that costs a quarter of a million dollars...even if my lab has the money, I can't buy the best machine in the world, which is from the United States, everyone knows that," he said. Even if the MIC were to buy such a machine from a third party, it would not be able to use U.S. repair services. "I can't buy these machines even if I have the money, because I wouldn't be able to repair them. You can't spend a quarter of a million dollars every six months [buying a new machine]...even if you know this [machine] is the best for your patients."

I spoke with Marianniz Diaz, a young scientist at CIM. When asked what we could do in the United States to help CIM scientists, her response was straightforward: "The main thing you can do is to remove the blockage."

"I would like us to have unrestricted interaction, so that we (Cuba and the U.S.) can share our science, our products, (and) our knowledge," she told me.


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