Babies have a right to live

The Cuban Ministry of Health recently announced Cuba’s best-ever infant mortality rate (IMR). In 2004, out of every 1,000 babies born, only 5.8 died during their first year of life.

Cubans take a broader view of human rights than do many U.S. opinion shapers. The Cuban Revolution took Thomas Jefferson’s words to heart about “certain inalienable rights … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But as testimony to Cuba’s dedication to the right to life, numbers can be more persuasive than words.

Cuba’s 2004 IMR was second in the Western Hemisphere only to Canada’s rate of five deaths per 1,000 babies. The United States came in at seven deaths per 1,000. The average rate for all other Western Hemisphere nations, according to UNESCO, was 36 per 1,000 babies. Public health analysts suggest the latter figures may represent falsely low rates. Infants are more likely to die in rural areas, and records there may be nonexistent. Cuba joins an elite group of 36 other countries with favorable IMRs. All but Cuba, however, are wealthy, industrialized nations. The World Health Organization and the Pan-American Health Organization validate Cuba’s perennially low IMR.

Health care Cuban-style has to do with the preservation of life. Cuba’s IMR in 1958, the last year before the Revolution, was 65 deaths per 1,000 babies. Had that rate prevailed in 2004 when 127,062 babies were born in Cuba, 8,255 babies would have died. Instead, only 748 babies died — almost all of them from lethal congenital defects and adverse conditions affecting the baby in its mother’s uterus.

In the United States around 4 million babies are born every year. The IMR for African American babies added up to 13.6, almost double the overall U.S. rate. The Cuban population mix, of course, includes 50 to 65 percent whose ancestry is African. If by some magic Cuba could have shared its IMR with its neighbor to the north, then 4,800 babies who died in the United States would have survived. Had the Cuban rate prevailed in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2004, 30 babies taken from each contingent of 1,000 live births would have lived, not died. The number of preventable infant deaths in Haiti is astronomical.

Cuba has worked for 45 years to construct an environment conducive to healthy children. The setting is social justice and socialism. Parents are educated, have jobs, food, and decent housing. They have confidence and hope. Families know about prevention, caring for sick babies at home — especially diarrhea — and going to the doctor early, if need be. There’s more to Cuba’s low IMR than intensive care units and specialty services for uncommon diseases.

Health care, both preventative and curative, is accessible because no money is required, and Cuba boasts more physicians per capita than any other nation in the world. Women’s health care is comprehensive, abortions and birth control being readily available, and day care centers are numerous and free. Children are healthy in Cuba because of people’s unified purpose and their readiness to organize for the common good.

The United States spends 13.8 percent of its gross national product on health care. Cuba spends only 6.8 percent of its national outlay on health care, yet babies there survive and thrive. Cuba, of course, has a special approach to money. Health care is for health and life of the people. Cuba leaves profit and inflated salaries out of the equation, and the rest of the poor world is watching.

“The U.S. government is afraid to lift its blockade because it fears Cuba’s example,” said Foreign Minister Roque-Perez, speaking before the UN General Assembly in October. “It knows that we would demonstrate even more the possibilities of Cuban socialism.”

A mere number, eloquent beyond words, makes the case. Social justice and human rights are matters of life and death — pure and simple.

W.T. Whitney is a pediatrician in rural Maine.