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Cuba’s heroic medical brigades

Cuba is at the forefront of the worldwide struggle against the coronavirus, writes Faiza Rady

Faiza Rady, Tuesday 24 Mar 2020

“The humanitarian and altruistic dimensions of the events could make them the stuff of movie scenes. The crew of the MS Braemar, owned by the British Fred Olsen cruise line, spent several days sailing the Caribbean with passengers aboard showing symptoms of coronavirus infection. Despite diplomatic efforts by the UK government, the ship was refused entry by several ports in the region. Cuba said yes and offered a safe port in the face of adversity,” reported Enrique Moreno Gimeranez in the Cuban daily Granma. In Cuba itself, as of 19 March, 16 people tested positive for Covid-19, among them a young Cuban woman returning from Italy and four tourists.

Gestures of solidarity and outreach to patients suffering from lethal diseases is the norm in Cuba. “International solidarity is part of our identity,” writes Gimeranez. “It has written memorable chapters in our history.”

Because internationalism is a major tenet of Cuban socialism, which regards the right to health as a human right, this is no idle talk. To date, 28,268 members of Cuba’s medical brigades serve in 61 countries. Ghanaian-American physician Sarpoma Sefa-Boakye, who was granted a scholarship to study in Cuba, where education is free at all levels, estimates that there are currently more Cuban than indigenous doctors working in Africa, reports Alan Mcleod in the progressive US journal Mintpress.

For over 56 years, an army of more than 400,00 healthcare workers have provided medical services in 164 nations. “Women and men from the Caribbean island have faced Ebola in Africa, blindness in Latin America and the Caribbean with Operation Miracle, and Cholera in Haiti. Twenty-six Cuban brigades — from the Henry Reeves International Contingent of Doctors Specialised in Disasters and Major Epidemics — were granted the Dr Lee Jong-Wook Public Health Award by the World Health Organisation (WHO).”

The island’s contribution to the struggle against the pandemic is of crucial importance because of the Cuban antiviral drug Interferon Alpha 2b, which is used to combat the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Hepatitis B and C and Respiratory Papillomatosis, in addition to other life-threatening diseases. “The drug prevents aggravation and complications in patients reaching the stage that ultimately can result in death,” Mcleod quotes Cuban biotech specialist Dr Luis Herrera Martinez as saying. While the drug isn’t a cure or a vaccine, its antiviral function boosts the patient’s immune system and hence supports recovery.

Interferon is manufactured in Cuba and has been produced in China since 2003 at the Jilin Changheber Plant in partnership with the Cuban pharmaceutical industry. “The Chinese Health Commission has selected our drug among those used in the fight against coronaviruses,” tweeted Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel. It has had positive effects on the lives of hundreds of Chinese, reported Granma.

China aside, Cuban Interferon is also sought in Spain where it has been successfully used in the treatment of patients, in conjunction with two other drugs used for HIV infections.

There is also increased demand for Interferon in Mexico, especially after it was estimated that the drug cured more than 1,500 patients worldwide. And the WHO selected Interferon, among others, as a choice drug to combat the Covid-19 disease.

“Cuba is providing medical cooperation today in 37 countries reporting Covid-19,” reported Prensa Latina on 21 March. On the same day, Cuba responded to Italy’s request to assist the country beleaguered with the highest rate of infections in Europe by sending a team of 52 health workers, among them 50 specialists in epidemiology, to Lombardy, the Italian city most affected by the pandemic. Some of the physicians had experience combating Ebola in Africa.

Over the last few days, Cuba has sent medical brigades to Nicaragua, Venezuela, Surinam and Grenada — among other nations — to assist in the struggle against the coronavirus. “There is a national feeling of wanting to cooperate,” said Dr Jorge Juan Delgado Bustillo, director of the Central Unit of Medical Cooperation. “We receive messages from volunteers willing to go anywhere to help in this world’s health situation,” he commented.

Cuba is also at the forefront of attempts to create a new vaccine against Covid-19, reported Prensa Latina.

Dr Gerardo Guillen, director of the country’s Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Centre, said that the centre has worked on particles similar to the coronavirus and which greatly enhance the immune system’s functioning, to halt the dissemination of the Covid-19 disease.

Another call for Cuban help was voiced by French parliamentary leader André Chassaigne who requested his government join other countries’ call for assistance. And in a letter to the Cuban minister of health, the President of the Democratic and Republican Left Olivier Véran, explained that “Cuba has specialised drugs for the treatment of infectious diseases,” highlighting Interferon’s success in slowing down the pandemic’s spread in China.

In reference to the United States’ economic sanctions against the island, Véran dismissed the US stand as illegal. “The blockade that the US enforces against Cuba, in defiance of international law, cannot in any way affect Franco-Cuban collaboration on health,” he wrote.

Cuba also stands at the forefront of the battle against other lethal viral epidemics, says physician Helen Yaffe writing in Counterpunch. In 1981, Cuba was struck by an epidemic of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne tropical disease caused by the dengue virus. As a result of the infection, half a million patients are hospitalised each year. By 1986, the Cuban Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology had developed a recombinant Interferon that has cured thousands of Cubans since then.

And in 1990, a Cuban research team successfully produced the first vaccine against the deadly Meningitis B virus. Cuba’s vaccine was awarded a UN Gold Medal for global innovation. “The island’s vaccine was called ‘Cuba’s meningitis miracle’,” recalls Yaffe.

The WHO declared Cuba the first country to have eliminated the transmission of HIV from mother to child, a landmark in the response to HIV globally.

In spite of and despite of the 60-year-old US blockade that has cost the Cuban economy an estimated $750 billion, and has been consistently condemned by majority votes at the UN General Assembly, Cuba has prevailed.

According to a 2019 Bloomberg international health study based on life expectancy, access to drinking water, eating habits and the efficiency of the healthcare system, Cuba ranked 30th while the world’s sole superpower, the United States, ranked 35th, trailing Estonia, Chile and Costa Rica.

All these achievements stand as clear evidence that Cuba has realised Fidel Castro’s early revolutionary dream of “creating a fully independent nation where justice prevails”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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