Cuba has a lung cancer vaccine. Many U.S. patients can’t get it without breaking the law
The United States will continue to demonize any country that offers their people things the United States themselves refuse to offer. At the expense of people's lives and for the purpose of making money, America is oppressive in many ways, even to the detriment of their own future.
Keays has stage 4 lung cancer. As his treatment options appeared to be dwindling this fall, he went to Cuba for a vaccine treatment despite a federal law that prohibits Americans from going there for health care. Now, with President Trump’s recent tightening of the regulations governing travel to Cuba, it has become much harder to travel there. But Keays needs more of the vaccine. This spring, he’s going back.
“I am not looking to break the law. But I am not looking to die, either,” Keays declared. “People with stage 4 cancer, like me, should be allowed to try whatever they want to stay alive, whatever they think will work. The last thing they need is the government on your neck over some archaic regulation saying just take what is available here and die.”
Keays has abundant company. In the two years since relations between the U.S. and Cuba were normalized under President Barack Obama, a growing number of lung cancer patients traveled to Cuba for a vaccine called Cimavax, and more recently, a newer vaccine, Vaxira. These patients are an elusive group. None of those who went apparently provided their real reason for going to Cuba when applying for a visa, nor did many of them declare to U.S. customs officials that they were bringing multiple vials of the vaccine into the U.S. on their return. Few even tell their doctors they are taking the injections for fear they will refuse to treat them further.
“I can only see it as compromising him because now he has a patient on a drug that is not approved by the FDA,” said a patient in Florida named Larry, who asked that his last name not be used. Larry has gone to Cuba twice for the vaccine — both times without telling his doctor because, “He might be afraid he would be sued, or he might stop treating me.”
Just how effective are the vaccines they’re smuggling into the country in their small refrigerated lunch boxes is unclear. Neither of the vaccines prevents cancer; rather, they are a kind of immunotherapy that prompts the body’s immune system to battle the disease in patients with non-small cell lung cancer. In January, the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, N.Y., launched a clinical trial of Cimavax with Cuba’s Center of Molecular Immunology, which developed the vaccine. It is the first such joint venture between the two countries since the Cuban revolution.
Roswell is now doing research to determine if they want to do a similar trial with Vaxira. It will take years for either of the drugs to receive any final approval.
For many patients, including some who were not accepted into the Roswell trial, travel to Cuba has become a much-talked-about option. So popular has the practice become that patients on Internet support groups routinely trade anecdotes and travel tips about their Cuban journeys. Until, that is, Trump threw a wrench into the process.
Major changes for patients going to Cuba
The change in regulations governing travel to Cuba that went into effect in November altered one of the most popular categories of travel to Cuba initiated by Obama, known as “people-to-people,” which allowed travelers to go to Cuba on their own. That’s how many Americans have been quietly going to the island for medical care, even though doing so is prohibited under the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Now, people in this category must travel with an organization and have a guide present.
Americans can continue to travel on their own to Cuba for the purpose of professional research or to provide “support for the Cuban people.” But given that travelers in those categories are required to maintain a full schedule of activities, it’s likely that neither will be a good option for cancer patients.
At the La Pradera International Health Center in Havana, where most American cancer patients go for treatment, Dr. Anabely Estévez García felt the impact of the new regulations in her inbox as soon as Trump announced back in June that the changes were in the works. American patients began canceling their plans in a flood.
“We can not go at this time,” a Texas man emailed García on the day of Trump’s announcement. “President Trump changed everything today. It is not possible to go directly from here. Keep us in touch.”