By Dylan Scott
WASHINGTON -- The US Department of Health and Human Services and the Cuban government on Monday signed a memorandum of understanding to encourage cooperation between the two countries on health matters, another step in the Obama administration's efforts to normalize America's diplomatic relations toward its island neighbor.
The long-estranged countries will work together on global health issues, including infectious diseases like dengue fever, and the medical challenges that come with aging populations, the department announced.
"Cuba has made significant contributions to health and science, as evidenced by their contribution to the Ebola response in West Africa and becoming the first country to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission," HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said in a statement. "This new collaboration is a historic opportunity for two nations to build on each other's knowledge and experience, and benefit biomedical research and public health at large."
A Cuban delegation, led by the country's health minister, is visiting Burwell this week.
The memorandum is an umbrella agreement, which will allow the countries to undertake more specific activities in the future.
Health officials in the two countries have talked in the past, when necessary, before the Obama administration started to normalize relations, Jimmy Kolker, who leads the HHS global affairs office, told STAT. The new agreement, he said, "will allow [us] to build on that platform, but to do much more."
More detailed discussions have already been held about allowing scientists to stay abroad for a longer period than previously possible. For example, the National Institutes of Health or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could have Cuban researchers in residence, Kolker said. Cuba has also expressed an interest in having American scientists come to the island for medium-term projects.
Kolker singled out Zika as another area for cooperation. Cuba is the home of one of the World Health Organization's collaborating centers on dengue fever, a close relative of the Zika virus that has sparked global fears this year. The island nation has seen comparatively few indigenous Zika cases, which they credit to their mosquito-control programs aided by that dengue work.
US officials could study Cuba's mosquito programs and dengue research as summer arrives and concerns over Zika escalate, Kolker said.
"That's of immediate relevance to us," he said, "and we think sharing information between countries will be mutually beneficial."
Those following the talks were enthusiastic about the potential for the United States and Cuba to work together on issues like Zika, drug development, and medical training.
"We're at about 5 percent" of the potential for US-Cuban collaboration, Gail Reed, executive director of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba, which was founded in 1997 to facilitate work on medical subjects between the two countries, told STAT. "It doesn't mean that there has been no collaboration, but I think it's been very difficult for many institutions to thread this needle."
There is precedent for such an agreement: US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his Cuban counterpart, Agriculture Minister Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero, signed a memorandum of understanding in March. It set a broad framework for the two countries to share ideas and research on issues like nutrition, water safety, and the agricultural problems caused by climate change.
Reed also cited the potential in pharmaceuticals, pointing to a Cuban drug for treating diabetic foot ulcers that has been used to treat more than 100,000 patients since it was put on the market in 2007. More than 100 members of Congress in 2013 urged the Treasury Department to allow the drug to be tested in the United States, but it so far has not been made available.
Cuba could also open another pool of clinical trial participants for US drug companies, Reed said.