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Whirlwind Week for Health in Havana

Whirlwind Week for Health in Havana

Havana, October 23, 2016—Making news here last week: a hemispheric meeting to tackle Zika, a visit by US Secretary of Health & Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell, signing of a US-Cuba memorandum to promote joint cancer work, and a top-level scientific meeting on cancer therapies.

Burwell And Morales Shaking Hands

Photo: Cubadebate

The Zika meeting was organized by PAHO and the Ministry of Public Health of Cuba, a country recording few cases of the disease thus far, especially in comparison with Brazil and even Puerto Rico. A total of 47 countries in the region have reported Zika, with over 29,000 cases in the USA alone. The disease is associated with birth defects and other neurological disorders. PAHO Director Dr. Carissa Etienne, health ministers and other high-ranking government leaders from the Americas, adopted the Havana Consensus at the meeting’s end, confirming a regional strategy to prevent and control all arboviruses, through enhanced surveillance, vector control, better diagnosis, improved laboratory networks, greater community participation and hemispheric cooperation.

PAHO’s Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri noted that 520 million people in the region are at risk for arboviruses. Four of these (dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and Zika) are now present in the Americas, spread by a common vector, the Aedes mosquito. In opening remarks, Dr. Etienne noted that these diseases “take an especially heavy toll on our region’s most vulnerable populations.”

The meeting was attended by US Secretary of Health & Human Services, Silvia Mathews Burwell, who also visited health facilities and signed the first cancer-related MOU between HHS and Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health, committing the two countries to work jointly on this growing health problem for both countries. Representing Cuba, Public Health Minister Dr. Roberto Morales noted that the accord opens the door to cooperation on cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation, and expressed hope that the results would not only benefit Cuba and the US, but also patients in the region and the world. The MOU explicitly provides for collaboration in joint research; meetings and conferences; exchange of information, best practices and surveillance; as well as other activities related to cancer control.

Exemplifying the potential of such collaboration was a meeting going on literally next door: Immunotherapy 2016, organized by Cuba’s Molecular Immunology Center and attended, among others, by directors of its US partner in cancer vaccine research, the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of Buffalo, New York. (The two are working towards clinical trials for several Cuban-developed therapeutic vaccines, including CIMAvax for lung cancer.) Some 50 top-level cancer and related specialists from 14 countries, including Dr. Michael Caligiuri of Ohio State University, president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research, presented at the annual event.  Awards went to several younger participants, their winning posters representative of the next generation of Cuban cancer researchers.

Poster Award-Winners-International Meeting on Cancer

Next generation of cancer researchers (Photo: G. Reed)