Cuba’s Minister of Public Health Discusses Cuba’s Progress in STD Treatment and Prevention

Dr. Roberto Morales, Cuba’s Minister of Public Health, discussed his country’s progress in sexually transmitted disease (STD) treatment and prevention at a National Press Club Newsmaker on Wednesday.

Cuba is the first country in the world to receive certification from the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO) that it eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. The international health organizations issued the certification to Cuba on June 30, following a March visit by a committee of independent experts and observers to Cuba to assess the country’s progress on that front.

Elimination of transmission is defined as a reduction of transmission to such a low level that it no longer constitutes a public health problem, according to WHO.

Cuba has come a long way from the status of its healthcare system at the end of the 1959 revolution. In the 1960s, syphilis, then a major health problem in Cuba, was largely treated by pharmacists and dermatologists as Cuba faced a dearth of doctors and poor medical coverage for its population.

“We only had 6,000 doctors stationed mostly in the big cities, of which nearly 50 percent migrated, mostly to the United States. We had just one medical faculty at the University of Havana,” Morale said.

Cuba has since invested heavily in healthcare, instituted free and universal healthcare, improved health coverage, and developed programs for the prevention and control of STDs, including those aimed at reducing mother-to-child transmission.

Among other benefits, such programs provide prenatal visits by medical personnel, counseling, and STD testing for pregnant mothers and their partners, as well as free antiretroviral drugs and specialist treatment for HIV-affected individuals.

“In the past four years, the rate [of mother-to-child syphilis transmission] has been between 0 and 0.04 percent per 1000 live births,” he said.
Cuba also implemented broader interventions outside the health system, including standing up a task force to fight HIV/AIDS comprising various civil society organizations and associations, as well as an awareness-raising campaign designed to change behavior and reduce the transmission of STDs.

“Healthcare has to be seen from the point of view of life,” he said. “In that respect, an intersectoral approach and the involvement of the community becomes indispensable.”

Universal and free healthcare is a continuing priority for the Cuban government, which devotes approximately 25 percent of its budget to welfare and healthcare, according to Morales.

“The development of human capital, the strengthening of primary medical care via the family doctor and family nurse, the Government of Cuba’s biotechnological and pharmaceutical industries, the strong component of intersectoral participation and community participation, based on an expressed political will on healthcare –- which has become an essence of the Cuban revolution,” Morales said.

Morales also fielded questions on how normalizing U.S.–Cuba relations could strengthen Cuba’s public health system, in light of plans by the American and Cuban governments to open embassies in Havana and Washington.

“The re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the lifting of the blockade should allow us to buy technology and drugs that today cannot reach our country and will be to the benefit of our population,” Morales said.

Normalized diplomatic relations could also lead to greater U.S.–Cuba cooperation on public health and scientific matters, as well as increased commercial opportunities in the medical tourism industry and opportunities for investment by U.S. healthcare companies.