Cuba: Modern Health Care Harnesses Power of Herbal Remedies

By Patricia Grogg

GUANTANAMO, Cuba, Oct. 3, 2005 (IPS/GIN) — For a wide range of health problems from high blood pressure to asthma to the common cold, people are just as likely to turn to herbal remedies as to conventional drugs in this easternmost province of Cuba.

Garlic tincture, copal wood resin syrup and a compound known as Imefasma are the three most highly sought after “phytopharmaceuticals” or plant-based medicines produced by the state-run pharmaceutical industry in Guantanamo, located 1,000 kilometers southeast of Havana.

Imefasma is a bronchodilator made from a combination of banana stalks, aloe vera and a flower from the hibiscus family (Hibiscus elatus malvaceae) which many asthmatics have begun to use in place of prescription drugs.

“My grandson has been taking it for three years and he hasn’t had a single asthma attack in all this time. Not even one,” declared a woman waiting to be served at a dispensary in the city center.

Garlic tincture is also a highly popular natural remedy, used to treat high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol levels. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, noted Cristina Tabera, a pharmaceutical technician.

Although natural and traditional medicine has been incorporated into the mainstream public health care system throughout Cuba, the use of herbal remedies is particularly widespread in Guantanamo.

“My parents treated me with herbal remedies, and it wasn’t because we couldn’t afford other medicines. It’s a custom in our province,” Maria Miras San Jorge, director of the Guantanamo Pharmaceutical and Optical Enterprise, told IPS.

The state company she directs employs a total of 757 workers, including 631 women.

At the same time, however, some of the doctors interviewed by IPS warned of the potential risks posed by this practice, because some of the plants can be toxic in overly large doses.

“The danger is greater in the case of children. A lot of caution is needed when prescribing remedies for children under five,” said a pediatrician from the Guantanamo Hospital who asked to remain anonymous.

The province’s herbal medicine industry encompasses three laboratories and 26 dispensaries spread throughout 10 municipalities, seven of them in mountainous regions.

The raw materials for the laboratories are provided by a plantation devoted to cultivating medicinal plants. “In all, there are 141 workers employed in the production of these remedies, and this year’s projected output is 2.1 million units. And none of that will be surplus production, it will all be consumed right here in the province,” said Miras San Jorge.

The use of medicinal plants is a longstanding tradition in Cuba, passed down from generation to generation.

In the 1940s, Cuban botanist, agronomist and pharmacologist Juan Tomas Roig (1877-1971) identified 599 species used by the population for different medicinal purposes.

“I consider myself a disciple of Tomas Roig,” said Americo Delgado, who is famous throughout Guantanamo for his encyclopedic knowledge of the curative powers of hundreds of plants.

“Mother Earth has everything a human being needs, you just need to know where to look for it,” he added.

Delgado’s living room is set up like a clinic, where twice a week he attends to hundreds of “patients,” dispensing the medicinal plants he goes out to gather himself from the surrounding forests.

“The plants he recommends are very good. He cured my mother of an ulcer she had on her leg,” reported Maria Mercedes, who lives in the same neighborhood.

Delgado told IPS that he keeps scrupulous records of the people he sees, their medical problems, and the treatment he has prescribed to them. He stressed that his work is monitored by a Ministry of Public Health laboratory.

“Mr. Delgado has become a community leader in the use of medicinal plants for different health problems,” said Marlenis Cala Cala, the permanent representative of the federal Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment on the Provincial Commission on Natural and Traditional Medicine.

Cala Cala admitted, however, that Delgado lacks the technology needed to ensure the maximum effectiveness of the services he provides. “We are cooperating with a development, innovation and technology transfer project aimed at fulfilling his dream of having a small laboratory,” she reported.

A CD-ROM on medicinal plants developed in Guantanamo offers information on the 74 species most commonly used in the mountainous regions of Cuba, and has been distributed to health care and higher education centers with access to digital technology.

Cala Cala told IPS that various projects are under way to protect and revive endangered plant species that are in high demand for the health care system, such as Java tea (Orthosiphon aristatus B), rue (Ruta graveolens L.) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.).

The Cuban government program for the development of natural medicine, established in 1996, addresses a wide range of activities, including the training of medical personnel, scientific research and development, the production and distribution of herbal medicines, and the integration of natural medicine techniques into the mainstream health care system.

The country’s health care authorities have stressed that natural medicine should not be viewed as an alternative or complement to conventional Western medicine, but rather as an integral part of the treatment arsenal of all Cuban health professionals.

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