“Water And Rest”: The Prescription in Cuba in the Absence of Pharmaceuticals

Grandmothers’ remedies are gaining popularity in the face of drug shortages in Cuban pharmacies and hospitals. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 2 February 2021 — It started with a small wound on his foot, but as the days passed, infection and fever set in. Luis Álvaro, 25, went to the emergency room at the nearby Freyre de Andrade hospital in Centro Habana. After looking at his foot, the doctor concluded: “I can’t prescribe antibiotics because there aren’t any. Rest, drink plenty of water and keep your foot elevated.”

Four days later, with a large red area around the wound, the young man posted on Telegram: “I’m exchanging a Nintendo wireless remote for a full course of oral antibiotics and a tube of Gentamicin.” Shortly thereafter, an interested party responded. Luis Álvaro obtained several blister packs of amoxicillin, a drug manufactured in Cuba.

His skills with instant messaging, having something to exchange on the black market and the fact of living in Havana, which has a dynamic informal commerce, played out in favor of this young man, but in regions far from the capital the options are much more limited, and “you can’t find medications even if you have money,” says María Victoria, a resident of San Antonio de los Baños.

After several days of uncertainty, the health of María Victoria’s relative has evolved favorably, but she hasn’t stopped worrying. “I see sick and chronically ill children and elderly people who can no longer find the medications they need,” she warns. “It’s a desperate situation.”

“We’re very concerned,” this resident of one of the most populated municipalities in the province of Artemisa tells this newspaper. “I have a niece who they thought had leptospirosis, because there were several cases in one part of town,” she says. “She was prescribed rest and water because there wasn’t anything else. We spent days of anguish, and all we could do was wait.”

To avoid crowds in pharmacies, hospital officials have warned doctors not to prescribe drugs they don’t have. “Before, I ran out of prescription pads very quickly, but for months I’ve hardly used them because there’s nothing left to prescribe,” acknowledges a doctor from the Miguel Enriquez hospital in Havana.

“We’re seeing patients who arrive with an infected lesion, and if a topical medicine is used in time there won’t be any pain or complications, but there’s nothing to prescribe,” laments this graduate in Comprehensive General Medicine. “A few days ago I treated a woman with severe ankle pain, and I knew that with a painkiller she would feel better, but I couldn’t write the prescription.”

“As a doctor, I’m aware of what’s happening with the lack of medicines and the risks of the pandemic. I tell my family and friends to avoid going to hospitals unless it’s something serious,” she laments, “because we can’t give them anything to help them and the danger of getting coronavirus is high. ”

In some consulting rooms for family doctors, there are signs posted explaining how to use natural remedies that range from infusions to calm anxiety to the use of softened leaves to treat skin lesions. Grandmothers’ remedies are gaining popularity as the pharmacies remain empty.

Herb growers who offer their products in the city have seen a rebound in the number and variety of plants that their customers request. “Before, what we sold most was basil for Santeria rites and some sticks that are also used for spiritual work, but now this has become a pharmacy,” Ramón, a herbalist from Monte street, tells this newspaper.

“The most requested herb now is chamomile, the leaves of the plant that people call Meprobamato (Plectranthus neochilus Schltr), prickly pear leaves for issues related to foot pain, horse liniment for those who have kidney problems, and I also sell a lot of rosemary for sore throats,” he explains. “There are days when I close at noon because I run out of products.”

But Ramón’s herbs can do little or nothing when a serious illness is involved. “In recent months the situation has worsened, and although the problem has been going on for a long time, we’re now in negative numbers. Medications for chronic patients can’t be found, or only half the dose that the patient needs arrives. If there’s an emergency we have to appeal to social networks,” explains the father of an oncology patient.

“My daughter underwent a mastectomy and now she’s using cytostatic serums, but from the list of medications that she needs to make the process more effective and bearable, we’ve had to get two of them through friends,” says the man. “We have had to buy other medications, but the price doesn’t matter because it’s a question of life or death.”

Instant messaging for some, herbs for others and money for a few are propping up medical treatments in a country that is still seen internationally as a medical bulwark.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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