Dhaka, Bangladesh
Defying embargo for cancer care

Off the Track

Defying embargo for cancer care

Cuba has faced more than 50 years of US sanctions. Now, for the first time, a unique drug developed on the communist island is being tested in New York state. But some American cancer patients are already taking it - by defying the embargo and flying to Havana for treatment. Judy Ingels and her family are in Cuba for just six days. They have time to go sightseeing and try out the local cuisine. Judy, a keen photographer, enjoys capturing the colonial architecture of Old Havana. And while she is in the country, Ingels, 74, will have her first injections of Cimavax, a drug shown in Cuban trials to extend the lives of lung cancer patients by months, and sometimes years. By travelling to Havana from her home in California, she is breaking the law. The US embargo against Cuba has been in place for more than five decades, and though relations thawed under President Obama, seeking medical treatment in Cuba is still not allowed for US citizens. “I’m not worried,” Ingels says. “For the first time I have real hope.” She has stage four lung cancer and was diagnosed in December 2015. “My oncologist in the United States says I’m his best patient, but I have this deadly disease.” He does not know she is in Cuba. When she asked him about Cimavax, he had not heard of it. “But we’ve done a lot of research - I’ve read good things,” Ingels says. Since January, Cimavax has been tested on patients in Buffalo, New York state, but it isn’t yet available in the US. Ingels, her husband Bill and daughter Cindy are staying at the La Pradera International Health Centre, west of Havana. It treats mostly foreign, paying patients like Ingels, and with its pool complex, palm trees and open walkways, La Pradera feels more like a tropical hotel than a hospital. This trip from their home in California, together with a supply of Cimavax to take back to the US, will cost the Ingels family more than $15,000 (£12,000). Cimavax fights cancer by stimulating an immune response against a protein in the blood that triggers the growth of lung cancer. After an induction period, patients receive a monthly dose by injection. It’s a product of Cuba’s biotechnology industry, nurtured by former President Fidel Castro since the early 1980s. Ironically, Cuba’s biotech innovations can partly be explained by the US embargo - something Castro continually railed against. It meant Cuba had to produce the drugs it could not access or afford.

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