Published on 23 August by Jamaica Observer
A senior Cuban biochemist attached to Cuba's largest biotechnology institute has reached out to Jamaica in an effort to save the struggling country millions of dollars and simultaneously improve health care for its people.
Leading Cuban biochemist, Dr Manuel Raices Perez-Castaneda, Business Development Executive at Cuba's Center for Generic Engineering and Biotechnology, said that Jamaica was so near, yet appeared to be far away from engaging Cuba in ways that it can improve health care to hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans who suffer from various ailments.
"For a long time we have had cooperation in health care with Jamaica, and even now we have a permanent medical brigade in your country," Perez-Castaneda told the Jamaica Observer in an exclusive interview at his organisation's offices here.
"But cooperation could be better between us. The first thing is for Jamaica, it will be a win-win situation, and personally, I get the feeling that this message is not clear.
"When you are talking about introducing knowledgeable therapists who are not in Jamaica, could be sent there, one of the things people think about is how expensive it could be in an economic scenario -- introducing new therapists that can be costly, and it's not clear of the impact that will be derived. We have an answer for that.
"When you look at health as an expense, you start making a mistake, and I am not talking about Jamaica alone. This is the first mistake a country can make, because in health you do not spend, you invest," Dr Perez-Castaneda said.
Among the initiatives that Cuba is willing to undertake, in collaboration with Jamaica, Dr Perez-Castaneda said, is the plan to reduce Jamaica's spending on a disease like diabetes, and fewer amputations which result from complications of the disease.
"If your health authorities are willing to evaluate their situation, the only thing they need to do is come here and sit at this table and let us talk. Jamaica should not wait any longer.
"Until 1980, diabetes was not as rampant. Today it is a pandemic. People in Jamaica who I have done a study and conducted research on, overexpose their pancreas to extra work by bad eating. Junk food that is very tasty is a wonderful recipe to develop diabetes.
"It costs Jamaica US$99 million per year to treat diabetes (medication, surgery, renal dialysis, heart attacks, blindness etc), because around 216,303 persons in Jamaica have diabetes. It is like a tax.
"If things continue at this rate in Jamaica, very soon you will have an invasion in your country without an army. If you have diabetes, go to the beach and hit a stone, bacteria gets inside and say 'this is a five-star hotel for us' and they colonise the wounds. The next thing is the person finishes with an amputation, which leads to depression and in less than five years, 90 per cent of persons who lost a leg die.
"There is a US$32-million cost associated with amputation. Now, we have developed a technology in Cuba that has resulted in far less people getting amputations. That can also be offered to Jamaica. We now amputate one fifth of the legs that we cut seven years ago, so there is an 80 per cent reduction of amputations in Cuba. We can transform the Jamaican health sector if you hear us. The therapy that we have in Cuba saves lives. If we cooperate and work as a team, every year we can save 1,000 legs in Jamaica," Dr Perez-Castaneda told the Sunday Observer.
"We have a set of technocrats here in Cuba who can improve even more the quality of life of the Jamaican people, but also can generate huge savings in health spend in Jamaica, if you invest in our products. But we need to have cooperation with Jamaica at a higher level than it is now. We have some technology that can help improve the quality of lives of Jamaicans. So you have the neighbour who has the political will to cooperate even more in health," he went on.
Dr Perez-Castaneda said that Cuba's will to develop its biotechnology industry stemmed from the embargo imposed on the socialist country by the United States after it severed ties with the Fidel Castro led Cuba, following a coup on January 1, 1959.
"The United States and Cuba reached an agreement to resume diplomatic relations recently. The embargo needs to be lifted now. But it was as a consequence of this embargo that has lasted 54 years that we Cubans developed this biotechnology institute. Without the embargo, we would probably not have the strength that we have now because Biotech was started in 1978 when scientists realised that they could produce the programmes to heal people."
After starting over 30 years ago with 61 staff members, the centre has grown to have over 22,000 staff workers.
Cuba is believed to be the leading nation in the world in health care, per capita. The island's children are the most vaccinated infants in the world, using Cuban vaccines, and the Spanish-speaking island has lifted its life expectancy in the last 20 years by 10 years to 78.5 years, coming from an original life expectancy of 60 years at the time of the Revolution.
Its infant mortality rate is 4.2, one of the lowest in the world.
Additionally, Cuba has 42 registered drugs to treat various ailments which are used by people all over the world. There are also 881 generic drugs used in Cuba, 583 of them manufactured on the island, and 46 patents.
Among the major breakthroughs is the elimination of Hepatitis B among teenagers and children under five by the year 2000, following the development of a vaccine and the embarking on a massive vaccination campaign. It has resulted in lower liver cancer cases.
The introduction of a prostate cancer vaccine is also far advanced in a country which has trained over 600 doctors, dentists and nurses since it offered to assist Jamaica with health education in 1978.
"We in Cuba are a poor country with highly educated people. The best thing you can do in your country is to invest in your people's health. The Cuban people live as poor people but die as rich people.
"We have hosted two Jamaican health ministers and we have expressed our support and asked them to cooperate some more with us for Jamaica's benefit. The ball is now in Jamaica's side of the field. We made the offer, we know what we have and how to do it. This is not a sprint event, it is a 42-kilometre race," Dr Perez-Castaneda said.
Dr Perez-Castaneda said that having studied the Jamaican medical system, there is also a need for vascular surgeons in Jamaica. "We could go to Jamaica and train your people, starting in Kingston, by first choosing them carefully, because you don't want people to be trained and then end up running private practices, setting up clinics and getting rich. They need to serve the public system.
"Jamaica after training its personnel can sell the technology to other countries, and use the money to develop health in Jamaica.
"We have also made this proposal to Jamaica, but they have not made a decision," Dr Perez Castaneda said.
In 1975, a team led by Professor John Golding, father of Justice Minister Mark Golding, was sent to Cuba by then Prime Minister Michael Manley to study the Cuban health system and make recommendations to the Government. The team also included Manley's close friend, Dr Matthew Beaubrun, who later became an ambassador.
Professor Golding in his report said that while Jamaica had nothing to teach Cuba, "Jamaica had a whole lot to learn from Cuba's system of health care".