U.S. blocks medical exchange with Cuba

It is commonly believed that the U.S. blockade against Cuba, in force for over four decades, is limited to politics and economics. Cooperation for people's health is allowed, right?

Wrong: For the second year in a row, the U.S. State Department denied Cuba's minister of health a visa to attend the 47th meeting of the Directing Council of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) Sept. 25-29 in Washington.

PAHO, founded in 1902 and headquartered in the U.S. capital, is the World Health Organization’s regional office for the Americas. Cuba, a founding member, is one of nine nations serving on its executive committee. But this year Jose Ramon Balaguer Cabrera, Cuba’s highest health official, was once again denied permission to attend.

On the committee's agenda was approval of a 'statement of intent' under which 'the governments reiterate their commitment to the vision of a region that is healthier, more equitable in regard to health.' Item 11 of the statement reads: 'The countries of the Americas seek to eliminate avoidable unjust and remediable health inequalities.'

Appearing on Cuba's behalf before the Directing Council, Dagoberto Rodríguez, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, seemed to suggest that participation by Balaguer might have cleared up ambiguities in the later declaration.

According to Rodríguez, Balaguer would have told PAHO representatives that 30,000 Cubans, mostly physicians, are providing health care to people in 68 countries, that 20,000 health workers are being trained in Cuba, and that 350,000 Latin Americans received free sight-restoring eye operations a year. His point would have been that 'health inequalities' are 'avoidable' — all of them — and as such, could be eliminated.

Rodríguez asserted, 'The North American government is mistaken in presuming to silence Cuba's voice, to block efforts of my country to extend international medical cooperation.' Calling Balaguer's exclusion a 'monstrous joke,' he urged PAHO to publicly condemn the U.S. action and to change its venue for future meetings.

U.S. restrictions on the exchange of health care and scientific information run both ways. Last March, Washington prevented 100 U.S. scientists, therapists, surgeons, and physicians from attending the Fourth International Conference on Coma and Death held in Havana. They included Kenneth Gross, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of Miami, who, writing in a recent Washington Times, notes the rarity of international, multidisciplinary symposia on brain functioning. He recalls one being held in 2000 and none having been hosted in the United States.

Desperate to find information helpful in the treatment of an 18-year-old comatose university student in Miami, Gross searched the Internet in vain for material from the Havana meeting. His patient, Michi Padrón, died Sept. 6.

Gross points out that the 'almighty dollar' occasionally has worked to break the health care blockade, but that collaborative treatment projects for difficult problems like coma fall into a different category. 'Although drugs do exist for coma, there's no global campaign, because these drugs ... don't contribute to the lucrative profits sought by the drug companies.'

The company YM BioSciences may have such a drug. On Sept. 25 the Treasury Department approved company plans to import the Cuban drug Nimotuzumab. Targeted for inoperable pediatric brain tumors, this is the first Cuban anti-cancer drug allowed into the United States for clinical trials.

Gross says he favors opening up an 'interchange that includes scientific, academic, and medical dialogue with Cuba.' He says he is unaware that the corpus callosum, a structure connecting the right and left sides of the brain, is a 'bridge only for those who vote capitalist.' He would build a 'bridge for Michi' to join the two countries. He noted the tragic irony that Michi, dead after prolonged coma, was of Cuban heritage.