One country has accomplished what the Director-General of the World Health Organization called “one of the greatest public health achievements possible” by eliminating the transmission of HIV from mothers to their newborns. This country’s method at eliminating HIV transmission to newborns was achieved with modest healthcare infrastructure investments, putting the high-spending competition to shame.
On July 1, the WHO announced that Cuba has become the very first country to receive the organization’s validation for eliminating the transmission of HIV from mothers to their newborns. Cuba’s achievement comes only five years after entering into a regional initiative that was aimed at eliminating the transmission of this virus and syphilis. Cuba, incidentally, managed to eliminate the transmission of syphilis to newborns as well. The country has achieved the lowest possible transmission rate of babies born with HIV from mothers who have HIV, according to the BBC: A less than two percent transmission rate.
“Eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible. This is a major victory in our long fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and an important step towards having an AIDS-free generation.”
According to NBC, newborn HIV transmission can fall to almost nothing, but pregnant mothers have to be tested during pregnancy and the mothers must receive the needed drugs. Without the treatment, the transmission rate skyrockets to between 15 and 45 percent. Dr. Michel Sidibé, executive director of the United Nations agency UNAIDS, said that Cuba’s diligence shows that ending the AIDS epidemic is possible.
Beneath the heralding of the Cuban HIV victory, lies an even more impressive story, though. According to Forbes, Americans are not well versed in how impressive the Cuban healthcare experience actually is.
“If you rely on US news, Cuba has been portrayed since as extremely poor, with citizens under the thumb of a repressive regime. Some of our lack of knowledge about the Cuban experience may be because the US reportedly even ‘forbade publication of articles from Cuba by US journals.'”
“One of the key differences between our health care system and that of Cuba is that the US, as many western countries, focuses on treating disease, rather than preventive medicine. This is an enormously profitable system for manufacturers of diagnostic and radiologic tests, as well as for expensive medicines. In contrast, Cuba’s health system is strongly focused on prevention, using low-tech means extraordinarily effectively.”
In Cuba, only 10 percent of its GDP is spent on healthcare, but Cuban citizens all receive universal healthcare. Each pregnant woman reportedly receives at least 10 prenatal visits and regular HIV testing. Every Cuban has a family physician and a nurse. Preventative healthcare and sex education are highly promoted.
“Cuba represents an important alternative example where modest infrastructure investments combined with a well-developed public health strategy have generated health status measures comparable with those of industrialized countries,” authors published in the International Journal of Epidemiology wrote of Cuba’s healthcare system. “If the Cuban experience were generalized to other poor and middle-income countries human health would be transformed. Given current political alignments, however, the major public health advances in Cuba, and the underlying strategy that has guided its health gains, have been systematically ignored.”
In Cuba, infant mortality is lower than in the United States and life expectancy is almost identical, despite the enormous wealth disparity of the two countries. Cuba has an unbelievably good handle on HIV, with high rates of testing, free condoms, and rigorous voluntary traces of sexual contacts. Plus, in Cuba, if you can’t make it to your doctor, according to Dr. Rafael Mazín, senior AIDS adviser for the Pan American Health Organization in Washington, doctors still make house calls.
Additionally, medication used in the treatment of HIV are picked up at the pharmacy using official cards that protect the patients privacy by not having their names printed on them. The added privacy is due to the real possibility that an HIV patient might be too embarrassed to fill their prescription if they thought someone in the pharmacy would realize that they had HIV. According to the WHO’s press release, “99.2% of HIV-positive pregnant women and 100% of exposed babies had received treatment as of September 2014,” and the antiretrovirals needed for the treatment are provided to these women and their newborns, for free.
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