Cubans Turn to Herbs in the Face of Medicine Shortages

By Cubanencuentro

Pharmacy on San Lazaro St. in Havana. Photo: Cubencuentro

HAVANA TIMESDayana Rodriguez says that her son is being overpowered by scabies. However, she hasn’t been able to find any of the treatments prescribed by her doctor at any drugstore in Havana. So she is now turning to an herbal remedy, she told Reuters news agency.

In spite of Cuba being in the lead in the Latin American race to develop their own COVID-19 vaccine, the country is suffering severe shortages of basic medicines amid its worst economic crisis in decades.

“None of the medicines he’s been prescribed can be found, not benzyl benzoate, or the other one for the itching that could normally be found in every drugstore,” said Rodriguez, while buying medicinal plants in a store in Central Havana.

Nine families in Havana told Reuters that they are fighting to treat scabies outbreaks, a highly infectious but preventable skin disease, due to medicine shortages.

Three doctors consulted by Reuters (who asked to remain anonymous) said they had started recommending that their patients boil a combination of herbs together and to apply them to the skin to provide temporary relief for scabies. They said it was useless to prescribe them medicines that are missing on drugstore shelves. One of these doctors even recommended a veterinary treatment for one of his patients.

The health system is one of the things that the Cuban government brandishes the most as an “achievement of the Revolution”. It uses the argument that it has produced results similar to those of wealthy nations, using the resources of a developing nation. Likewise, that it has managed to remain intact in spite of the US commercial embargo that in place for decades.

However, cash problems in the State’s weakened economy ever since the USSR collapsed – which sustained the Cuban system – have taken their toll on both health institutions and the availability of medicines.

In recent years, cuts in aid from their ally Venezuela, new US sanctions and the pandemic, have sunken Cuba into the worst economic crisis it’s seen since the 1990s.

Last year, the minister of Health, Jose Portal, announced on national TV that approximately 116 basic medicines were in shortage in June. Out of these, 87 were manufactured locally and 29 were imported.

Florencio Chavez, who has been running a medicinal plant store for 25 years, says that demand for herbal remedies has increased in recent years. For example, he recommends French candle bush, bitter melon, Neem and Parthenium hysterophorus for treating scabies.

Cubans have also created groups of social media to swap medicines or other products for the ones they need, while the illicit market is thriving out on the street and on the Internet.

Chronic shortages

Cuban authorities began to talk about chronic medicine shortages, including basic medicines such as those for treating high blood pressure and contraceptives due to the liquidity crisis in 2017, saying that it had to cut back on imports of necessary supplies for local manufacture.

Last year, the government said that delays in shipments due to the pandemic had made the situation worse, as had new US sanctions.

While medicines are technically exempt from the sanctions, they continue to be a strong disincentive for medical suppliers abroad, who run the risk of being fined, and the embargo damages the whole economy, so there is less revenue for imports.

Some elderly people, such as 80-year-old Yolanda Perez, who suffers from glaucoma, complain that they don’t have the energy they need to wait in line outside drugstores in the night, with the hope of getting something in the trickled supply of medicines.

“It’s been six months now since the last time I was able to get my Latanoprost,” the medicine that helps her not to lose her eyesight, she said.

In January, authorities in the eastern province of Holguin warned Cubans not to buy these on the illicit market because some medicines aren’t what they say on the packet and can even be harmful.

“The problem is that people are desperate because of medicine shortages,” a reader identifying as Arcela wrote, commenting on an article about this issue that was published in state-controlled paper Juventud Rebelde. She said that her sister had to buy antibiotics on the illicit market.

“That’s why people are doing this.”

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.