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Monday, 10 September, 2001, 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK
Cuba's medical success story
Havana is a popular destination for health tourists
By Daniel Schweimler in Havana

As speculation continues over the health of 75-year-old Cuban President Fidel Castro, one thing is certain - he does not have to worry about the medical attention available to him in his own country.

This year's crop of Cuba's leading medical students have just received their certificates from Castro at a ceremony in Havana.

It's not about adding years to your life, but about adding life to your years

Mirtha MacBeath,
86 years old
Many Cubans see them as the cream of society, taking their skills to the remote corners of the island as well as to other developing countries such as Haiti, Honduras and Paraguay, and several African countries.

Cuba is not a rich country, but when Castro came to power in 1959 his socialist government set about building a health system that would benefit the whole society.

The emphasis has been placed on primary health care - health education and prevention - rather than on expensive equipment and medicines.

Low mortality

Cuba has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the region, with the average citizen living to 76.

Elderly Cubans are encouraged to take part in activities - such as the Tai Chi class in a park in central Havana. It ensures they stay fit and active as well as providing them with a social life.

If an example were needed of the benefits of the class, then 86-year-old Mirtha MacBeath is it.
Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro is now 75 years old

"What we'd like for all the grandparents of the world - we don't like the word pensioner, we prefer grandparent - is that they can be as happy as us," she said. "Because it's not about adding years to your life, but about adding life to your years."

Cuba's infant mortality rate is just seven in a thousand - better than in many American cities. Cuba says it has the best doctor to patient ratio in the world, while about 10% of annual state spending goes on health.

Interest from abroad

The country receives regular visitors to investigate how they do it. One of these was the head of the World Health Organisation, Gro Harlem Bruntland.

Many of the UK doctors have been amazed to find that family doctors in Cuba have a patient population of only 300, whereas in the UK it's 1,800

Dr Patrick Pietroni
"You see the statistics on Cuba, and then you can see the results of a policy which reaches all the population and has the systematic effort of public health intervention which is both in education and health," she said.

Another advocate of the system is Dr Patrick Pietroni, who recently - for the second year running - brought more than 100 British doctors and medical staff to Cuba.

"What we have found is that, although clearly Cuba is quite a poor country in terms of its GDP - I mean, one can see the poverty - it is a very rich country in terms of its human resources," he said.

"Many of the UK doctors have been amazed to find that family doctors in Cuba have a patient population of only 300, whereas in the UK it's 1,800."

As well as caring for its citizens, Cuba is also putting a great deal of investment and energy into medical research.

Meningitis B vaccine developed in Cuba
A new vaccine against Meningitis B was recently developed in Cuba
There are a string of scientific establishments in the leafy suburbs of western Havana, some of which have made significant advances, especially in the treatment of meningitis and hepatitis B.

Medical researcher Dr Ricardo Silva, said: "Each time, we are trying to improve the contribution to our economy."

"But our priority is Cuban health, and the health of the Third World countries as well."

Overcoming the embargo

As well as saving lives, the aim of their scientific work is to earn foreign currency and overcome some of the effects of the 40-year trade embargo imposed by the United States.

Cuba says the embargo means vital medicines do not get through, causing inevitable death and suffering.

One elderly patient explained how it affects her. "Medicine isn't expensive but there's not enough for everyone who goes to the chemists," she said.

"That means there are long queues, and people get fed up because not everyone gets the medicines they want."

Cimeq hospital in Cuba
Cuba's hospitals are well-staffed and well-equipped
Another major earner of foreign currency is health tourism, with thousands of Latin Americans and Europeans coming to Cuba, attracted by the fine reputation of Cuban doctors, the low prices and nearby beaches on which to recuperate.

One of the main aims of the Cuban revolution has always been to provide an effective health system for its people.

But along with the health tourism and advanced medical research, Cuba has - against the odds - built a model that is attracting attention from other, far more wealthy, countries.

See also:

13 Aug 01 | Americas
Cuba considers life after Castro
19 Oct 00 | Americas
Castro: The great survivor
08 Dec 98 | Health
UK seeks Cuban meningitis secret
19 Aug 99 | Health
Health tourists head for Cuba
06 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Cuba
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