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Cuba: The New Global Medicine

Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, co-coordinator of the Green Party of St. Louis, and producer of Green Time in conjunction with KNLC-TV. The author thanks Ivan Angulo Torres for assistance in translating and interpreting doctors in Peru, and Conner Gorry, senior editor of MEDICC Review, for comments on a draft of this article. It is based on a presentation at Legacy Books & Café in St. Louis, Missouri on July 12, 2011.

Cuba is remaking medicine in a remarkable diversity of cultures in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Its efforts go far beyond providing medical care to other parts of the world as a Western approach might limit itself to doing. The Cuban project develops bilateral agreements with host countries to rethink, redesign, and recreate medicine.

John Kirk and Michael Erisman provide the most comprehensive documentation of the extent of this undertaking.1 Since 1961, over 124,000 health professionals have worked in over 154 countries. In 2009, 24 percent of Cuba’s 70,000 doctors were participants in health care “brigades” on international “missions.”

Though the majority of Cuban doctors travel to locations in this hemisphere or Africa, they have also provided relief to the Ukraine after the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami, and Pakistan after its 2005 earthquake. Cuba is establishing medical agreements with Laos, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Tuvalu. By 2008, in addition to 11 million in their own country, Cuban doctors were providing medical care for over 70 million people, and “almost 2 million people throughout the world, many of whom were probably children when they received help, owe their very lives to the availability of Cuban medical services.”2

Venezuela has developed closer ties with Cuba than any other country and has received the most help from it. According to Steve Brouwer’s Revolutionary Doctors, over 14,000 Cuban doctors had come to Venezuela by 2009, and he offers particularly deep insights into the social relationships that underlie medicine in both countries.3 To date, Venezuela is the only country that has sought to replicate the Cuban model on a national scale.

Events in three other countries show the strengths and contradictions of Cuban participation in world medicine:

  1. 1. After its emergency response to the 2007 earthquake in Peru, Cuban doctors faced multiple obstacles as they set up consultorios and a policlínico based on the Cuban model.
  2. 2. During relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Haitian patients developed very different relationships with Cuban doctors than they did with those from the United States.
  3. 3. African and African-American medical students in Havana hope to blend Cuban medical approaches into traditional Ghanaian healing practices.

A Policlínico and Consultorio in Pisco, Peru

On August 15, 2007, my daughter, Rebecca Fitz and her partner, Ivan Angulo Torres, were vacationing in Arequipa, Peru. At 6:40 PM a level eight earthquake hit the town of Pisco in Ica province of Peru. Rebecca went back to Lima, but Ivan had just completed his fourth year at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana (ELAM, Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina) and went to Pisco to help.4

Soon, reports would show that over 500 Peruvians died, another 1,042 were injured, and over 100,000 were left homeless.5 The first international relief to arrive was the Henry Reeve Brigade from Cuba. (Cuba’s first response teams for international disasters are named after Reeve, a New Yorker who joined the Cuban fight for independence and was killed in battle in 1876.6) The Brigade comes complete with medicines, medical equipment (including autoclaves for sterilization), and tents for examinations and surgery.

Finding the Cuban doctors well-organized to deal with the disaster, Ivan and other ELAM medical students devoted themselves to documenting the Brigade’s work. The resulting twelve-and-a-half-minute movie, Nuestra Misión (Our Mission), shows remnants of the poorly constructed homes which crumbled from the quake and the makeshift thatched homes that replaced them. Many initial injuries were followed within a week by pneumonia deaths from the cold weather. The emergency tent hospital of the Cuban doctors housed 1,980 operations, ran 30,734 diagnostic tests, and performed 151,454 therapeutic treatments. Help only arrived from the Peruvian government when press cameras were rolling.7

As the response to the earthquake subsided, the Cuban doctors transformed the emergency tent hospital into the Pisco policlínico, which has medical exam rooms, a birthing room, recovery room, and outpatient operating rooms. By far, the rooms most in demand at the policlínico are for adult and child physical therapy. Three years later people were still suffering effects of the earthquake. When I visited the Pisco policlínico in 2010, its director, Leopoldo García Mejias, explained that then-President Alan García did not want any more Cuban doctors and that they had to keep quiet in order to stay in Peru. As is typical for Cuban medical directors, Leopoldo has multiple international experiences, his first being in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.8

Unlike in Cuba, health care at the policlínico is not free. It collects about 80,000 soles per year from patients, which it turns over to the Peruvian government for improvements.9 But the improvements were not always forthcoming, which forced discussions with the Alan García administration. By 2010 everyone knew that 200 or so Cuban doctors were in Peru, making it possible for the policlínico to garner public support. Clearly, sustaining a health center is as much a political as a medical happening.

Backing is also likely to come from Peruvians who visit a neighborhood consultorio. Peruvian doctors trained in Cuba have set up three consultorios in Pisco, each with assistance from a nurse completing the last year of nursing school. Dr. Johnny Carrillo Prada and Dr. María Concepción Paredes Huacoto helped set up the Consultorio No. 2 in Pisco. They are Peruvians who received medical degrees at Cuba’s ELAM, which offers a rigorous six-year course of study for free to students who must pledge to provide care for impoverished communities.10

Johnny and María explained that the Peruvian health care system is not socialized medicine. For those who work, Peruvian social security takes money out of their paycheck for national health care, which has limitations such as covering only two visits per month and only covering the “primary” illness for those with multiple health problems. A different system offers insurance to the poor and provides even less coverage.

The consultorio must work within the framework of limited potential for reimbursement while attempting to see everyone who comes through the door. Consultorio No. 2 serves about 180 families which each pay one sol per month.

The backbone of the Cuban system of medicina general integral (MGI, which translates as “comprehensive general medicine”) is preventive community health care, with the consultorio as its building block. The doctor-nurse team live at (or near) the consultorio where they work, so they are part of the community. Cuban policlínicos assist thirty to forty consultorios by providing services during off-hours and offering a wide variety of specialists. They coordinate community health programs and are a conduit between nationally designed health initiatives and their local implementation. In contrast, the Pisco policlínico provides a much smaller array of services than would one in Cuba, not only because it has a smaller staff and is linking fewer consultorios, but also because it is not part of a policy of free health care.

There are other challenges to applying an MGI model in Peru. Cuban-trained doctors make home visits to everyone in the consultorio area. But in low-income areas of Peru the only official-looking persons to come to the front door are cops. So medical staff have had to explain the central role of home visits.

Since the country is also rife with scam artists, Peruvians were skeptical of a consultorio providing almost-free anything, especially something as vital as medical care. In order to establish rapport with the neighborhood, the doctors had to work through businesses and schools where they could distribute health materials and provide physical exams.

Perhaps the largest challenge has been education. The Cuban Revolution saw equality in employment, income, education, and medical care as proceeding together. The foundations of Cuban medical accomplishments are a primary care system that prioritizes prevention and scientific research scrutinizing population health needs. Thus, wiping out illiteracy has been vitally important to Cuban medical accomplishments. This makes it difficult to bring the model to a country where many cannot read and write.

One problem that Cuban-trained doctors have not had in Peru is a highly mobile population. In the United States, poverty often accompanies moving from home to home, which would make it very difficult to apply a model which assumes the doctor personally knows everyone in the community. In Pisco, however, even the poor tend to stay in the same home. Consultorio doctors are able to know their patients.

When Cuban doctors prepare to join a health brigade to another country, they learn to respect its culture rather than impose their social values. Without this approach, Cuban medical efforts in Peru never would have succeeded. The Cuban doctor has to simultaneously practice medicine and adapt to a different society.

The Alan García government, in power from before the earthquake through the first half of 2011, merely tolerated Cuban medical efforts. A few days before being sworn in as the new President of Peru, Ollanta Humala visited Cuban leaders in Havana. During his July 28, 2011, inauguration, Humala pledged to eliminate “exclusion and poverty,” which suggests closer collaboration between Cuban and Peruvian medical systems.11

Disaster in Haiti

When Joanna Souers was nineteen, she decided that she would work with people who were down on their luck, a decision that would take her to Puerto Rico, Tanzania, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, and Haiti.12 After graduating with a major in Premed in 2005, she went to Nicaragua to work on developing sustainable agriculture with Project Bona Fide. She was on Ometepe Island, which mostly grew export crops like rice and coffee, leaving people without a sustainable diet.13 Joanna saw Nicaraguans who could not be treated by Western medicine because it is too expensive and/or inaccessible. People were more likely to use traditional medicine like mango leaves for swollen joints and manzania or chamomile in baths for fevers or coughs.

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, Joanna went there and joined Common Ground Relief efforts in a nursing center doing support work. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Cuba quickly mobilized 1,500 doctors on an airstrip ready to come to the aid of New Orleans. But Washington refused their help. It left a lasting impression on Joanna to know that there were hundreds of Cuban doctors waiting for a nod from the U.S. government, but that thousands of New Orleans residents were deprived of health treatment due to U.S. politics. Joanna realized that Cuban doctors would have made an enormous difference in people’s lives. She also realized that most of the aid went to the wealthier areas of the city where the storm caused little damage.14

In 2006, Joanna applied to go to medical school at ELAM. She began her studies in 2007 and had just finished the first semester of her third year when Haiti was devastated by an earthquake on January 12, 2010. The Haitian government put the death toll at over 300,000, and an estimated 3 million people were injured or homeless.15

Joanna took a semester off to work in the Croix-des-Bouquets field hospital about eleven miles from Port-au-Prince. The hospital had been established by the Henry Reeve Brigade. (The brigade was formed from the doctors who had been mobilized to aid New Orleans, but who were rebuffed by Washington.) She observed thirty to forty surgeries in the field hospital surgical tent, but mostly she assisted walk-in patients. Many of them had not been hurt by the earthquake, but had other medical problems and had never seen a doctor.

Haitians traveled by foot to see Cuban doctors—some had to walk for hours from other towns. When they arrived, they found Cubans living in tents not far from earthquake victims. The Cuban doctors felt the same heat, walked the same roads, heard the same night time noises, and smelled the same smells of injury and death as did Haitians.

American doctors, in contrast, typically slept in luxury hotels in the Dominican Republic and were daily flown in and out by helicopter. While a disaster victim is grateful for any assistance given, it was clear that Cuban doctors were of the people and American doctors were there for the people (and for U.S. TV cameras).

Though you would not know it from watching U.S. TV, Cuban medical staff treated vastly more patients than did American doctors. This included hundreds per day practicing internal medicine, ob-gyn, surgery, orthopedics, pediatrics, wound healing, and physical therapy. At the time U.S. doctors had treated 871 patients, the Cubans had treated 227,143.16

Being part of a Henry Reeve Brigade is stressful not only due to the volume of patients, but also because a field hospital is so different from consultorios and policlínicos where most Cuban doctors work. Joanna is quick to point out that Cuban doctors in Haiti readily adjusted to this stress since most had previously completed several “missions” to Sri Lanka (after the 2004 tsunami)or to countries such as Mozambique, Venezuela, Honduras, and Angola.17 Many brigade members had previously served in Pakistan where the disaster and pathologies were similar. Serving in the “exterior” is some of the most prestigious work that Cuban doctors can do.

The Croix-des-Bouquets field hospital had the basics to deal with most patients, though some of the more complicated cases were sent to another hospital or to a location for chronic diseases. Cuban doctors become resourceful at trying techniques that may not appear in medical literature but work in disaster settings. They may use tree blocks for splints or cinder blocks for traction. Joanna reported that, not having more common anesthetics, Cuban surgeons had to rely on bupivacaina and had to alter the percentage solutions of dextrose to make it work for field surgery.

Doctors were always “on call” because complicated cases frequently came in. Yet, they would also do patient consultations. A Cuban surgeon is trained to be a well-rounded specialist who maintains capabilities in general medicine.

A major strength of Cuban doctors in a disaster setting is that they can make medical decisions quickly based on patient observation. They do not have to rely on expensive tests like the MRI, CAT scans, PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), X-rays, or ultrasound. Medical school teaches them to use basic lab tests and turn to X-rays or ultrasound only when it is necessary. Cuban doctors are familiar with the other tests and would use them if they were available but often make emergency decisions without them.

Joanna feels strongly that limited resources means that doctors in Cuba are not pressured to perform unnecessary tests and, unlike in the United States, hospitals do not tell physicians to check boxes to see if every test has been done. Cuban doctors are not forced to constantly think about malpractice suits. Incompetent doctors are brought to trial where their license could be revoked. Really bad ones go to jail.18 In contrast, U.S. physicians—trained to see a lawsuit hiding under every hospital bed—are ill-prepared to deal with a massive disaster such as the earthquake in Haiti.

Traditional and Western Medicine in Ghana

With the creation of Student Health Brigades (Brigadas Estudantiles por la Salud), ELAM medical students were provided with the opportunity to become primary actors in the new global medicine. One of the most outstanding examples is the Ghana Project. Created by the Organization of African Doctors in 2009, it aims to build closer ties between ELAM students and Cuban-trained doctors in Ghana.19 ELAM students who carry out the Ghana Project form the Yaa Asantewaa Brigade (YAB). (Born in 1840, Yaa Asantewaa was the Warrior Queen famous for leading the Ashanti uprising against British domination in the early 1900s in what is currently Ghana.20) In summer 2010, Omavi Bailey was one of six YAB members who went to Ghana, worked with traditional healers, and made contacts in order to develop the project into 2012 and beyond.21

As the report of their 2010 work describes, “In the initial phase of this medical mission the fundamental objective was to conduct an assessment of the health care resources and needs in the rural communities of Ghana’s Volta Region.”22 This included strengthening working relationships with Ghana’s Ministry of Health and local community leaders.

The students traveled to Logba, a small rural town in the Volta region, where they stayed in the guesthouse. As would be expected for students trained at ELAM, shortly after arriving they did an assessment of water systems and living conditions, including garbage disposal. For Cuban medical practitioners looking at public health issues like drinking water is an indispensable part of assessment. The YAB students also found that attending a large community funeral ceremony was important for understanding the village’s culture and being accepted as family.

The Cuban MGI approach requires students at ELAM to study traditional and natural medicine, and roughly 85 percent of Ghanaians rely solely on traditional healers. Western medicine is unavailable, unfamiliar, and costly. Logba residents would have to travel at least thirty miles to a medical doctor. Many Ghanaians do not receive medical care because they cannot afford it.

YAB students reported that their own transformation toward understanding the culture of natural medicine was the most profound aspect of their trip to Ghana. Meeting tribal chiefs and being accepted by the village was critical, not just for obtaining information from villagers, but also for understanding how everyday life is part of the healing system. When I asked Omavi Bailey for examples of traditional healing methods, he described massages for certain ailments and herbs for asthma, but emphasized that there are philosophical and spiritual dimensions of health and healing that transcend specific cures. These include the cultural traditions like not eating pork and counseling patients concerning how to live better in order to avoid problems.23

The students came to appreciate how the different spheres of life, rather than being divided from one another, dance in an interrelated wholeness. Perceiving this wholeness created the framework for YAB students to see the necessity of blending traditional and Western medicine in a way that makes health care not just affordable but also meaningful for people.

Conceptualizing the wholeness of human health helped the Ghana Project transition from a focus on infectious disease to hypertension. They went to Ghana with a major interest in infectious diseases that plague Africa.24 When at the Logba clinic, they provided “primary medical attention to over 400 patients.”25 They observed traditional healers give consultations as they took vital signs and medical histories.

To their surprise, hypertension was rampant, with 59 percent of men examined having hypertension, a history of mild stroke, or arthritis, while 46 percent of women had the same symptoms. Realizing that prevalent infectious diseases like malaria are well-studied, they decided to shift the 2011–12 phase of the Ghana Project to investigating and treating hypertension.

Bailey observed that Ghanaians generally do manual labor but still have hypertension despite their physical activity. He wondered if disconnection from many traditional Ghanaian ways of living, combined with new Western life-styles, could be major contributing factors to stress.

There is also the possibility that the introduction of environmental toxins might weaken the body’s ability to cope with stress and indirectly lead to hypertension. Bailey hopes to look at all of these during future trips. But the most important question for him is whether traditional Ghanaian healers already have treatments that might be effective for hypertension.

Students with the Ghana Project plan to research hypertension, organize, and raise money to return in 2012. Organizing includes many phone calls and improving their website so they can disseminate information more rapidly. But the U.S. blockade interferes with Internet and phone connections in Cuba.26

Therefore, ELAM students find that they need to do much of their organizing, especially making international connections, during summer trips to the United States. This is just one concrete example of how the U.S. blockade hampers Cuban medical initiatives and slows improvement in global health.

Conceptualizing the New Global Medicine

In science, “rigorous” means that a theory withstands multiple challenging tests. The MGI model of medicine withstood the test of Cuba’s “Special Period” when, following the fall of the Soviet Union, oil imports almost dried up, the island’s Gross Domestic Product plummeted, and 13 percent of the population became undernourished.27 The United States sought to strangle Cuba by a series of laws that further hampered its ability to import goods, including pharmaceuticals.

Yet, despite these severe setbacks, the rate of infant mortality in Cuba continued to fall in the 1990s and it was able to provide medical assistance to several countries hit by hurricanes. Consequently, Cuba’s MGI approach to health is perhaps the most “rigorous” metatheory of medicine on the planet today.

The massive amount of Cuban international aid—whether measured in terms of number of emergency teams sent, doctors working overseas, medical treatments provided, or lives saved—might give the impression that any country could replicate its efforts if it would only dedicate the resources to do so. This article suggests that this is not the case and that it is highly unlikely that the United States would be able to provide the same degree of aid even if it wanted to. The quantity of assistance which Cuba has provided presupposes the social relationships of medicine embodied in the MGI model.

Understanding the international success of Cuban medicine requires perceiving it not as a quantity of things but as a dynamic and unfolding process of becoming. The new global medicine is not merely a set of people and instruments that one country bestows upon another, but is a way of mobilizing the use of those people and instruments. The new global medicine is anything but patients sitting passively, waiting for governments to do good deeds—it is people participating in the creation and defense of health care institutions. It is based on the realization that health care is simultaneously a human right and something that people define and build as they adapt techniques and knowledge to their own culture.

Notes

  1. John M. Kirk and Michael H. Erisman, Cuban Medical Internationalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
  2. Ibid., 112, 120, 169.
  3. Steve Brouwer, Revolutionary Doctors (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011).
  4. Interview with Rebecca Fitz, St. Louis, Missouri, August 1, 2011.
  5. Lucien Chauvin, “Recovering from the Peru Earthquake,” Time, August 20, 2007, http://time.com.
  6. Brouwer, 29–30.
  7. Núcleo del PSR en Cuba, Nuestra Misión [Nucleus of the Peruvian Socialist Revolutionary Party in Cuba], Nuestra Misión (unreleased video) 2007.
  8. Interview with Leopoldo García Mejias, Pisco, Peru, December 27, 2010.
  9. One sol equals about 36 cents.
  10. For a description of the ELAM curriculum, see Don Fitz, “The Latin American School of Medicine Today: ELAM,” Monthly Review 62, no. 10 (March 2011): 50–62; interview with Dr. Johnny Carrillo Prada and Dr. María Concepción Paredes Huacoto, Pisco, Peru, December 27, 2010.
  11. Humala: ‘I Will Direct My Energies to Ending Exclusion and Poverty,’” Digital Granma Internacional, July 29, 2011, http://granma.cu.
  12. Leticia Martínez Hernández, “Joanna, una rebelde con causa,” Digital Granma Internacional, April 12, 2010, http://granma.cubaweb.cu.
  13. See Project Bonafide, “Vision,” http://projectbonafide.com.
  14. Formally designated at the “Henry Reeve International Team of Medical Specialists in Disasters & Epidemics,” they have come to be known as the “Henry Reeve Brigades.” Though the first offer to dispatch the Henry Reeve Brigade to New Orleans was rebuffed by the United States, it has since been active in disaster scenes across the globe. Conner Gory, “Cuban Disaster Doctors in Guatemala, Pakistan,” MEDICC Review 7, no. 9 (November/December 2005): 11–12. Interviews with Joanna Souers, February 21, 2011 and July 9, 2011.
  15. Bill Quigley, “Haiti Facts Seventeen Months After Earthquake,” ZNet, June 26, 2011, http://zcommunications.org.
  16. Emily J. Kirk and John M. Kirk, “Cuban Medical Aid to Haiti: One of the World’s Best Kept Secrets,” Synthesis/Regeneration 53, Fall 2010.
  17. The Sri Lanka tsunami of December 26, 2004 resulted in 40,000 deaths and 2.5 million people being displaced. See “Worst Ever Tragedy in Sri Lanka History,” http://lankalibrary.com.
  18. An example of Cuba’s dealing with gross medical negligence is the January 17–22, 2011 trial in which the prosecutor asked for six-to-fourteen-year sentences for doctors, nurses, and other professionals accused of causing respiratory illnesses and deaths of psychiatric patients by inadequately protecting them from unusually cold weather conditions in January 2010. See José A. de la Osa, “Havana Psychiatric Hospital Trial Concludes,” Digital Granma Internacional, January 24, 2011, http://granma.cu.
  19. For details of the Ghana Project, see Don Fitz, “The Latin American School of Medicine Today: ELAM”; Yaa Asantewaa Brigade, “African Medical Corps—Ghana Proposal,” August 15–September 5, 2010 (unpublished report).
  20. Yaa Asantewaa,” Born Black Magazine no. 3, February 2009, http://bornblackmag.com.
  21. Much of what they saw is available on YouTube in three short movies: “Healing: African Medical Corps: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3,” www.youtube.com.
  22. Omavi Bailey, “Yaa Asantewaa Medical Brigade,” December 2010 (unpublished report).
  23. Interviews with Omavi Bailey, July 15 and 29, 2011.
  24. Don Fitz, “The Latin American School of Medicine Today: ELAM.”
  25. Bailey, “Yaa Asantewaa Medical Brigade”.
  26. For effects of the U.S. embargo see Amnesty International USA, The US Embargo Against Cuba: Its Impact on Economic and Social Rights, September 2, 2009, http://amnestyusa.org.
  27. Linda M. Whiteford and Laurence G. Branch, Primary Health Care in Cuba (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), 31.