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Possibly paving the way for more Cuban health care exports, President Rafael Correa and a large delegation of Ecuadorean officials focused on Cuba’s medical system during a one-day visit to the island Friday.

The objective of the quick visit was to get to know in-depth the Cuban health care system and its sustainability, focusing on medical care for people with special needs, Correa said during a see-off press conference at the Havana airport in the wee hours Saturday.

Correa met with Cuban Health Minister Roberto Morales and other Cuban health officials to hear about how Cuba managed to achieve one of the lowest childhood malnutrition and mortality rates in the world, as well as one of the highest life expectancies in the Americas.

Cuba invests nine percent of its GDP in health care, compared to Ecuador’s seven percent. His government aspires to match Cuba’s spending, but much needs to be done to improve efficiency as well, Correa said.

“I think we have had extraordinary results, but we need to be more efficient,”  Correa said about health care in Ecuador, hinting that Cuban experts may help with that effort. “Cuba has had extraordinary results, which we also hope to achieve in Ecuador.”

Meanwhile, a large and high-ranking Ecuadorean healthcare delegation headed by Health Minister Carina Vance sought information about Cuba’s primary-care services; the family doctor system, which Ecuador wants to emulate; preventative health care; production of pharmaceuticals; genetic research; and Cuba’s comprehensive care system for people with disabilities.

The Ecuadorean delegation included Doris Soliz, minister for economic and social inclusion; National Risk Secretary María del Pilar Cornejo; Technical Secretary for Disabilities Alex Camacho; as well as officials with the education and social development ministries.

In May, Ecuadorean and Cuban researchers and businesspeople joined at a four-day meeting on health care research and medical technology in Quito. At the event, which was attended by 55 Cuban experts, Cuban Health Minister Roberto Morales Ojeda gave a presentation about his country’s health care system.

As part of a bilateral heath care agreement signed in 2011, Ecuador and Cuba agreed to implement a neonatal preventive health program in the Andean country; the three-year program is valued at $17 million. This is in addition to more than 200 Cuban doctors covering primary-care needs in Ecuador.

Also, Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) has graduated 1,400 Ecuadorean students; Cuba has committed to training 10,000 Ecuadorean primary-care community physicians and technicians.

Finally, Cuba has helped Ecuador implement the Manuela Espejo Mission, a program started in 2009 for the estimated 300,000 Ecuadoreans with disabilities. Some 200,000 have been reached by the program so far.

None of the two governments has released whether Cuba provides any of these services without charge, or how much the oil-producing South American nation has paid Cuba for these services. Ecuador has spent $218 million on training of hundreds of Ecuadorean medical students in Cuba, according to the Ecuadorean health ministry.

Next to healthcare service exports, the biggest gain for the Cuban economy of closer medical cooperation with Ecuador could be pharmaceutical exports.

Since the death of Hugo Chávez in March, Correa has taken on a leadership role in the ALBA bloc, which recently took steps towards creating a common medical market. In August, the member countries of the ALBA bloc officially announced the launch of ALBAmed, a multinational body that includes a regulatory institution and a central registry for pharmaceutical and medical products. Both are expected to lower barriers for medical trade within ALBA.

In 2011, Correa pledged his country would buy up to $1.5 billion worth of Cuban-made medical drugs and vaccines that year. The pledge came after the Ecuadorean health minister toured Laboratorios Novatec and Laboratorios Farmacéuticos AICA in Havana; Novatec produces, among others, generic versions of Aspirin and Tamiflu, and AICA makes medical supplies such as vials and aerosols. However, arguing that Cuban products were not registered in their country, Ecuadorean critics were apparently able to significantly reduce these purchases to tens of millions of dollars; at the time, Correa publicly complained about “sabotage” in his own health ministry.

In 2010, Ecuadorean state pharmaceutical company Enfarma signed an agreement with Cuba for a feasibility study and preliminary engineering services for construction of a pharmaceutical plant in Ecuador. The plant will use Cuban technology and will be operated by Enfarma. Construction has yet to begin.

Correa started his tour in Cuba with a visit of construction projects in Santiago de Cuba, where members of the Ecuadorian Army Corps of Engineers are participating. Ecuadorean engineers are helping Cuba rebuild two towers of the University of Santiago’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, where many Ecuadoreans are studying. Ecuadorean army engineers also help building 1,560 homes in Santiago’s Abel Santamaría district, which was devastated by hurricane Sandy a year ago. Completion of the residential project is expected by the end of 2015; earthmoving has begun for a first phase of 560 units.


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