In my prior post, I discussed a trip I made to Cuba in December. In this second part I will focus on some medical aspects.
When my patients ask about foreign travel where there may be health concerns, I usually direct them to the CDC site. It’s also where I go to check for my own travel, though I look at the more detailed Clinician view. To start off it recommends typhoid vaccination. You have a choice of the oral or injected. The oral is a live virus that is taken every other day for 4 doses, starting 12 days before potential exposure. It gives better immunity, but should not be taken by people with a suppressed immune system, such as those on steroids. The injected form is a non-live vaccine, a single injection taken at least 2 weeks before potential exposure. The injected form is harder to find, and even pharmacies that carry it may need to order it in advance. The injection is more expensive, and neither vaccine is usually covered by one’s health insurance. There are other vaccines recommended, but typhoid was the only one I needed.
Cuba has mosquitoes that may carry Dengue Fever, and more recently Zika. I chose to travel in December because it was outside hurricane season, it was the cooler time of the year, and there are less mosquitoes around that time. Cuba does a better job than many other countries controlling mosquitoes, but I was still cautious. Due to the cost, they don’t use insecticides to fumigate buildings, but rather burn oil, as can be seen in the photo above. We checked in to one place not long after they had done their weekly spray, and had to wait 30 minutes for smoke to stop poring out the window! I sprayed much of our clothes with permethrin spray, and applied DEET to exposed skin, especially in the evening when the mosquitoes are more apt to bite. I texted PLAN to 855-255-5606 to get periodic updates from the CDC about Zika before the trip.
Food is generally safe to eat, but we avoided street food. The tap water is not safe, however. We mostly depended on bottled water and avoided ice except at a few restaurants and bars that filtered their own water. Bottled water is kind of pricey at times. The best deals are on large (3-4 liter bottles) that you can find sometimes in stores. They often cost the same price or less than a one liter bottle that is more readily found. I also brought along a SteriPEN which sterilizes water with ultraviolet light. I didn’t have enough experience to trust it completely to replace buying bottled water, but used it to sterilize water to rinse our toothbrushes, and would have used it if we didn’t have bottled water. I also recommend bringing Imodium, and an antibiotic from your physician for traveler’s diarrhea. I’d also bring some toilet paper. Many public toilets often didn’t have any, or you’d get a small amount from an attendant after giving a tip.
Bring sunscreen. It’s not easy to find places that sell it in Cuba, and it’s expensive.
Months before my trip I tried to arrange to visit a hospital. It so happened that the fiancée of a Cuban in the travel industry who helped with some of the arrangements was an anesthesiology resident. He told me that he would love to show me his hospital, but that unfortunately the government required a 30-50 dollar payment, despite the fact that I said I would be bringing some medical supplies. He also said I would not be allowed to tour the medical school due to, “national security!” After I arrived we talked a number of times, and ultimately he could not get government approval for me to see his hospital, even though he said everyone at the hospital wanted me to come. He said the only exceptions they made were for those with an educational visa, coming to teach basically, and even then they needed at least 3 months notice.
Although I could not tour the hospital, I had some long conversations with that doctor and learned a lot about their system. All things considered, the Cuban doctors are apparently pretty good, but they are particularly hampered by old equipment and lack of medications and supplies. The anesthesiology resident showed me photos of anesthesia equipment they currently use that are from the 1980’s. He said they don’t have air scrubbers in the operating rooms, so sometimes everyone gets sleepy! He told me about a colleague of his who was working with a nurse anesthetist. She let her go home early because she wasn’t feeling well. Later she had to intubate a pregnant patient. Unfortunately it didn’t go well and the patient suffered brain damage. During a subsequent investigation the government argued that had she not let the nurse anesthetist go home early, maybe the patient wouldn’t have died because she would have had additional help. She was sentenced to 12-15 years in prison, and even if she gets out after 5-7 years for good behavior, she won’t be allowed to be a doctor anymore! Because physicians are held responsible for a bad outcome, Jehovah’s Witness patients are told they can’t refuse blood if needed, though they do take measures to minimize the need. Doctors are paid poorly (the resident said after he finished he would make 80 CUC (about $80) a month), often less than taxi drivers. It’s very difficult for specialists to be allowed to leave the country, even on vacation, for fear they won’t come back. If they go on medical missions they are paid better than usual, but they only pay them the bare minimum while they are abroad to encourage them to return home after the mission. I was surprised to learn that they are fairly tolerant in terms of LBGT, in part due to Raúl Castro’s daughter, and they even have doctors who do sex reassignment surgery to change gender.
Many Cubans rely on natural formulations, such as herbs, they call ‘green medicine,’ due to cost or personal preference. The anesthesiologist told me that for a man to get a prescription for Viagra (sildenafil) he has to see his primary care doctor, a urologist, and a psychiatrist. Once they get a prescription, though, they are basically assured of getting it indefinitely. He said many patients research their condition and tell their doctors what prescription they want, and they often comply.
One of the most dangerous things in Cuba are the cars. They are famed for their old cars, many of which look fabulous, but they lack safety features, such as seat belts and airbags. In fact we were in a car accident. We hired a car and driver for 6 days through a contact in the travel industry in Havana. He was probably around 60-years-old, and reportedly one of their best drivers. He was very nice, funny, and knowledgeable, and arrived to pick us up in a pretty new Chinese car, a BYD (Build Your Dream). On the first day as we were driving, while my wife and daughter were sleeping in the back, the car started drifting to the left. I grabbed the steering wheel, noting the driver had fallen asleep. He quickly awakened, pulled the car to the side of the road, and got out to stretch. He came back in and apologized, saying he had gotten up early to pick the car up. The next day he said that actually he hadn’t slept well because he had witnessed a teenager, who was not paying attention listening to music, hit by a car the day before.
In the middle of the car trip I met with the doctor I mentioned above and told him about the incident. I wondered if he might have sleep apnea, though the driver had said he had never had such a problem. He said that they don’t test for sleep apnea because they don’t have CPAP machines to treat it.
The rest of the road trip went fine until the final day. Once again my wife and daughter were sleeping in the backseat when the driver fell asleep again. This time he swerved too quickly for me to reach the wheel. We hit a guard rail, damaging the front end and side mirror and puncturing two tires. The driver said he did not know why he fell asleep and that he had been well rested. One theory I came up with is the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning from a leak in the exhaust system. Our driver obtained another car and driver for us, who brought us back to Havana.
No one was serious injured, but my wife was seated behind the driver and her left elbow hurt immediately afterward. Back in Havana we went to a clinic that caters to foreign visitors. X-rays showed no fracture. She was given a skinny piece of gauze to use for an arm sling (she had been using my belt up until that point). When it came time to leave they said we owed 100 CUC (about $100).
Cuba requires one to have medical insurance to visit the country, and they add $25 to the price of each airline ticket to cover it. Delta Airlines said to show the boarding pass if needed as proof of insurance. I showed the boarding pass, but they said it wasn’t good because it said AeroMexico on the top. I pointed out that below that is said that it was operated by Delta Airlines. They said they would have to investigate it. They gave no indication how long it would take, and given that it was the evening I didn’t think they would get an answer that night. I eventually gave up, paying the money so we could get her passport back and leave. I wrote Delta Airlines and explained the situation, sending them copies of the boarding pass and the medical bill. We were on something like their 4th commercial flight to Cuba, so I figured they would be eager to work out any glitches. I was wrong. Besides some email exchanges, they called twice at 7 am. When I pointed out the early hour I was told it was 10 am on the East coast. You would think an international airlines understood the concept of time zones! In any case, ultimately I was told we, “..must request a refund of the insurance premium directly with the Cuban insurance provider.” Really? They expect their customers to request a refund from the Cuban government?! All I was asking for was the approximately $100 I paid for the clinic. Not the taxi ride there and back, the medical costs after we got home, to say nothing of pain and suffering. Imagine someone of lesser means ended up needing much more care and being told the insurance they thought covered them didn’t. That might keep people from choosing to visit Cuba, at least on Delta Airlines.