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Health & medical issues

Health & medical issues

Written by and/or contributed to by Christopher Baker
Do you need any vaccinations before you go? Are there any specific health issues of which to be aware?
No vaccinations are required by Cuba; check your own Health Department Recommendations for other information. Cuba is normally safe as long as you are reasonably careful about what you eat and drink. The common travel-related diseases, such as dysentery and hepatitis, are acquired by the consumption of contaminated food and water. While Cuba has a relatively low incidence of HIV, any visitors should take obvious precautions if engaging in intimate relations on the island.

Mosquito-borne illnesses are not a significant concern in most of Cuba although you should be aware when there are periodic outbreaks of dengue. Sand flies can be a serious irritant on certain beaches but this is to be expected as the price of paradise!

Tap water in Cuba is not considered as safe to drink. Most Cuban households will boil water before drinking and foreigners should follow this procedure unless you have good quality purification filters.

Note that in late 2012, there were some reports of cholera in several areas of Cuba (originally Manzanillo and subsequently scattered cases in Cerro in Havana). This does appear as of March 2013 to have been brought under control but does suggest additional precautions such as possibly avoiding ice and being careful where you eat in general.

In the winter you should be extremely careful about the Portuguese Man of War (agua mala, botella azul o falsa medusa) in the ocean. Periodically the wrong wind brings shoals of these onshore where you should avoid treading on them and more dangerously in the ocean where if you are unlucky enough they can wrap their long tentacles around you causing extreme discomfort and pain. If you see them on the beach, don’t go swimming. If you don’t spy any (and they are easy to spot) then it means it should be fine since it is unusual to find a single one on its own.

To avoid any further contact with the Portuguese man of war and to carefully remove any remnants of the organism from the skin (taking care not to touch them directly with fingers or any other part of the skin to avoid secondary stinging), then:

* Apply salt water to the affected area (not fresh water, which tends to make the affected area worse) * Follow up with the application of hot water (45° C/113° F) to the affected area from anywhere between 15-20 minutes, which eases the pain of a sting by denaturing the toxins. * If eyes have been affected, irrigate with copious amounts of room-temperature tap water for at least 15 minutes, and if vision blurs or the eyes continue to tear, hurt, swell, or show light sensitivity after irrigating, or there is any concern, see a doctor as soon as possible. * inegar is not recommended for treating stings. Vinegar dousing increases toxin delivery and worsens symptoms of stings from the nematocysts of this species. Vinegar has also been confirmed to provoke hemorrhaging when used on the less severe stings of nematocysts of smaller species.
The Portuguese man of war is often confused with the common jellyfish by its victims, which may lead to improper treatment of stings, as the venom differs from that of true jellyfish.

What are the insurance procedures to be followed?
Since May 2010, Cuba has made it obligatory for all foreign visitors to show proof of their medical insurance when entering the country. Basically all foreign policies are accepted and any review is cursory. As when traveling in any country, having valid travel insurance is a sensible and important step.

ASISTUR (, the leading company in Cuba specialized in rendering assistance to visitors, will provide, if you prefer, travel insurance for around US$ 2.50 per day for non-Americans (US$ 8 per day for Americans).

Should you need medical treatment, you will need to pay following your treatment and make a claim back from your insurance company. ASISTUR is the entity that will deal with the paperwork. Typically, treatment is relatively cheap (a simple consultation and prescription is likely to be under US$ 50), although prolonged hospitalization will obviously increase costs exponentially (a week’s treatment in intensive care with all of the associated care and tests might run to US$ 5,000).

* One rationale for this new regulation was to close the loophole whereby the Cuban diaspora comes back to take full advantage of universal health care in Cuba.

How good is the health care provided for foreigners in Cuba?
The Cuban Government has established a for-profit medical system for foreigners called SERVIMED, which is entirely separate from the free, not-for-profit system that takes care of Cuban citizens. There are more than 40 SERVIMED facilities throughout the country including in all of the major tourism centers. The major clinic for foreigners in Havana is the Cira García Clinic in Miramar (see below for details).

In the event of an accident or other emergency, foreigners may be taken to the nearest accident and emergency center, which may be at a Cuban state hospital. Conditions here, at least aesthetically, are likely to be below expectations for many foreigners although the standard of care from the doctors is typically very good. Once a foreign patient can be moved, usually he will be transferred to a SERVIMED clinic such as Cira García.

Cira García Central Clinic
Calle 20 No. 4101 esq. Ave 41, Playa, La Habana, Cuba
Tel: (537) 204 2811/ Fax: (537) 204 2640

What is the availability of pharmaceuticals in Cuba?
There are special pharmacies for foreigners also run by the SERVIMED system. These have limited supplies, however, and should not be relied on especially outside of Havana for specialist medicines or prescription medicines (although typically they will have alternatives). As in many countries, a fully stocked medical kit should be packed as part of your travel luggage. This should include anti-diarrheal remedies (Immodium), some form of antacid (Rolaids or Tums) for stomach problems. If you are planning to ‘party’ take condoms!

At the airport what is the medical form I need to fill out
After you have passed through immigration but prior to entering the luggage haul at Havana Airport there are often medical staff present who will ask you to fill in a medical form specifying whether you have recently had any fevers, vomiting etc. This is to try and pick up any cases of contagious diseases – if you look rough expect to have to fill in this form which includes specific details of where you are staying.

  Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer, and leads tours of Cuba for MotoDiscovery and National Geographic Expeditions. His six books about Cuba include MI MOTO FIDEL: MOTORCYCLING THROUGH CASTRO?S CUBA (National Geographic Adventure Press), winner of two national book awards.
? Christopher P Baker
travel writer ? photographer ? moto-journalist ? cuba expert |

Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year  

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