Lost in the fanfare surrounding President Obama’s plans to re-open the U.S. embassy in Cuba was an announcement that may prove even more significant for the island’s inhabitants.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that Cuba had become the first country to successfully eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and Syphilis. By the WHO’s standards, that means that transmission levels are low enough not to constitute a risk to public health.
In a statement, WHO Director General Margaret Chan said that “eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible,” and that Cuba’s efforts marked a “major victory in our long fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections.”
While remarkable, Cuba’s feat shouldn’t be surprising. The country already boasts the lowest HIV rate in the hemisphere, tied with Costa Rica and Nicaragua at just 0.2 percent of the adult population. One key to that success is a cost-free healthcare system that ensures expectant mothers access to essential care.
In 2014, 100 percent of pregnant Cuban women—both those who knew their HIV status and those who did not—received the WHO’s recommended minimum of four prenatal care visits, according to the organization’s 2015 World Health Statistics report. Globally, only 64 percent received at least four visits.
Early access to prenatal care, along with concurrent HIV testing and treatment, has been a pillar of Cuba’s collaboration with the World Health Organization. In 2013 and 2014, more than 95 percent of pregnant women in Cuba knew their HIV status and more than 95 percent of those who were HIV-positive received antiretroviral drugs. In 2013, only two babies in Cuba were born with HIV.
“Cuba’s success demonstrates that universal access and universal health coverage are feasible and indeed are the key to success, even against challenges as daunting as HIV,” said Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, director of the UN’s Pan American Health Organization.
Still, despite progress fighting HIV, the country’s universal healthcare system is not without its drawbacks. After a raise last year, doctors in Cuba only make about $60 a month, and many have used the country’s medical missions program as a way to immigrate to other countries. In 2013, roughly 1,300 Cuban medical professionals defected to the U.S.
As Cuba’s economy and its relationship with the U.S. changes, its healthcare outcomes may change as well. Cubans—and the world—will be watching to see if their small country can hold on to this year’s big accomplishment.