HAVANA, Feb 6 (IPS) – Fighting cancer is the shared aim of Cuban scientists and folk healers who have produced vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and formulas based on the poison of the blue scorpion and the bark of the mango tree.
Curing cancer or at least improving the quality of life of patients is the goal shared by researchers and folk healers in this Caribbean island nation, where the ”silent killer” is the leading cause of death among people between the ages of 15 and 49.
”When you go to the doctor, the first thing you realise is that besides the radiation, all kinds of alternative options are appearing,” says Ileana Jiménez, a patient at the cancer hospital in Havana.
Preliminary data from the Public Health Ministry’s statistical yearbook shows that cancer claimed 17,490 lives in this country of 11 million in 2002, accounting for 23 percent of all deaths that year.
More Cuban women between the ages of 15 and 64 are killed by breast cancer — the most frequent kind, followed by tracheal, bronchial and lung cancer — than by heart attacks, accidents, suicides or HIV/AIDS.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 6.2 million people a year die of cancer worldwide, even though it has been the most heavily-researched disease over the past 50 years.
Jiménez is undergoing radiotherapy. But she also received permission from her doctor to take Escozul, a formula based on the diluted venom of the blue scorpion, which has been proven to be effective in reducing the number of cancer cells.
”The doctor allowed me to start taking the venom,” she says. ”And on my own I decided to take Vimang, a mango-based formula that isn’t supposed to cure, but supposedly eases the effects of the illness. I’m taking it because I figure it can’t hurt.”
For the past 20 years, Eleuterio Páez, a retired military officer, has distributed his ”miracle” product, which is based on the bark of certain kinds of mango trees, to thousands of people in need.
In the 1990s, the Pharmaceutical Chemistry Centre and other Cuban scientific institutions decided to test Páez’s formula in a rigorous six-year study.
Of 123 cancer patients, 87.3 percent experienced improvements in their quality of life, as reflected by the normalisation of their blood levels, reduced pain and swelling, and improved vital signs.
Escozul is another product of popular resourcefulness. Over a decade ago, the father of a 14-year-old girl who was dying of cancer heard about research using scorpion venom. He set up his own scorpion breeding programme, and began to distribute diluted venom to thousands of people who came to him for help.
Tests carried out in Cuba’s Labiofam pharmaceutical laboratories have shown that the poison does indeed inhibit the spread of cancer cells without damaging healthy tissues.
A source at the Pharmaceutical Chemistry Centre, one of the institutions comprising Havana’s scientific pole, told IPS that one of the tasks of the Centre’s researchers is to ”visit any folk healer who claims to have something new.”
Besides the intensive search for alternative medicines, Cuba announced last year that it had come up with a monoclonal antibody that has proven to be effective in killing cancer cells.
Cima-her, developed by the Centre for Molecular Immunology (CIM) in Havana, is no more costly than similar medicines produced in the United States, but appears to be more effective, and to have milder side-effects.
”Sixty percent (of patients) have experienced long-term remissions,” said Normando Iznaga, head of business affairs at CIMAB, which markets CIM products.
”In many cases, the product has demonstrated similar or better effects than the competition, and the toxic side-effects are less pronounced,” Iznaga said at a biotechnology conference last December in the Cuban capital.
In addition, CIM researchers have begun clinical trials on vaccines against lung, prostate, colon and breast cancer.
The lung cancer vaccine is also being tested in terminal cancer patients in London, while the breast cancer vaccine is being used in trials in Argentina and Spain.
According to WHO, if a cure is not found, the global cancer death toll will have climbed to 15 million by 2020.
Tobacco and alcohol use, poor dietary habits, a sedentary lifestyle and chronic infections are the biggest cancer risk factors.
”The first thing the doctor did was change my diet. I have to eat a lot of fruit, vegetables and grains, and avoid fats and red meats,” says Jiménez. (END/2004)