Wed, Oct 28, 2015 - Page 7 News List

US sanctions on Havana keep crucial drugs from cancer patients in Cuba


Six-year-old Cuban Noemi Bernardez on Friday last week sits in a room at the Cancer Hospital of Havana, where she has been treated for a brain tumor.

Photo: AFP

The US embargo on Cuba — which the UN General Assembly was scheduled to vote on yesterday — is not about international politics for Elizabeth Navarro. As far as she is concerned, it is just what keeps her daughter from getting the cancer drug she needs.

Navarro’s daughter, Noemi Bernardez, seven, had a brain tumor removed last month. Now, her doctors say she needs a US-made chemotherapy drug — temozolomide. That sounds easy enough, but sadly, it is not, family and doctors say.

Close neighbors but long-time foes, the US and Cuba restored diplomatic ties in July after a five-decade standoff, and now are trying to ease economic relations. The two countries have reopened their embassies in each other’s capitals and are talking about resolving their political differences, but US trade sanctions remain.

US President Barack Obama’s White House wants to lift the embargo, which prevents almost all trade across the Florida Straits, but conservatives in the US Congress are not ready to forgive the island.

The upshot is that the Cuban Ministry of Health has to try to find Noemi — who has an aggressive form of cancer — her drug in a third country to get around the sanctions.

“Right now, my daughter is getting radiation therapy. She has had to go through about 27 sessions,” said Navarro, 28, drying her tears at her daughter’s bedside.

Noemi has been in hospital for two months. And after a two-week rest following the radiation, she is scheduled for chemotherapy, Navarro said.

“For us, this is do or die,” her doctor, Migdalia Perez, said.

“In [Noemi] and other patients with similar microscopic-level tissue conditions, the medication that has managed to boost survival rates in them is temozolomide,” said Perez, who has worked for 15 years in pediatric oncology in Cuba.

The girl, whose family is from the south-central province of Cienfuegos, for now is far from home in Havana’s Pediatric Oncology Hospital. She spends her days watching videos and playing with a doll, her mother always by her side.

About 300 children are treated each year at six cancer facilities around Cuba, a country of 11 million people. While survival rates for cases like Noemi’s are almost 70 percent with the drug she needs, they are not quite 20 percent without it, her doctor said.

“Unfortunately, due to the US sanctions in place, as we all know, we have not been able to buy it directly from where it is produced,” Perez said.

The UN General Assembly will vote on a resolution calling for the end of the embargo.

Havana calls the US embargo a “blockade,” though the US already is a major food supplier of Cuba’s Soviet-style centralized economy under exceptions to US sanctions.

Where Cuba does have it harder is with medicines and medical machinery and supplies. Its companies make about 65 percent of the medicines its people need, but that leaves many out.

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