Canada’s reputation for universal healthcare is impressive. But can we still learn something from a Caribbean island with a Communist regime?



Chapter Introduction

Canada’s reputation for universal healthcare is impressive. But can we still learn something from a Caribbean island with a Communist regime? Doctors cited in the following piece by Rachel Browne say that we can and we should. It may be a matter of life or death. The article was first published in Maclean’s magazine on February 11, 2015.

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When a group of doctors and professors from Nova Scotia took a trip to Cuba in 2006 to study how the country managed infectious diseases, they were struck by how knowledgeable the average person was about vaccines, and decided to conduct an informal experiment: Quiz random passersby on the streets of Havana about their basic knowledge of their country’s vaccine safety program (the process by which vaccines are created and made safe) and their personal immunization records.

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“Without fail, everyone knew exactly what immunizations they already had, the scientific evidence behind them, and at what ages they needed to be updated,” says John Kirk, professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at Dalhousie University, whose research focuses on Cuba’s health care system. The research team also asked the Cubans their opinion on anti-vaccine movements in countries such as Canada and the United States. “They were dumbfounded. They thought we were joking,” Kirk recalls. “I guarantee you won’t meet a single person there who has doubted vaccines for a moment. For Cubans, vaccines aren’t only seen as a basic human right, but also as an obligation.”

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Upon their return, Kirk and his colleagues wrote an article for the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases, in which they conclude Canada can learn a great deal from the Cuban approaches to vaccinations and health care.

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The numbers say it best. According to the WHO’s 2014 global summary on vaccine-preventable diseases and academic studies, Cuba has not had a single reported case of measles since 1993, nor rubella since 1989. Five cases of mumps have been reported since 2000; the last one was in 2010. And pertussis hasn’t been reported since 1994. In contrast, Canada has had 2,203 cases of measles, at least 1,529 cases of mumps, and 21,292 cases of pertussis reported since 1990.


AP Photo/Franklin Reyes

Rachel Browne, “What Cuba Can Teach Canada About Vaccines,” Maclean’s, 11 February 2014. Reproduced by permission of Maclean’s Magazine.

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At a time when new cases of preventable diseases are regularly cropping up and a loud—albeit small—contingent of “anti-vaxxers” keeps getting louder, it’s a good time to figure out how to change those numbers.

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