Report: U.S. Sanctions Jeopardize Cubans' Health

(CNN) -- The U.S. trade embargo on Cuba is endangering the health of millions by limiting Cubans' access to medicine and medical technology, human rights group Amnesty International said Wednesday.

An Amnesty report examines the effects of the sanctions, which have been in place since 1962. Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan called the U.S. embargo immoral and said it should be lifted.

"It's preventing millions of Cubans from benefiting from vital medicine and medical equipment essential for their health," Khan said.

The embargo restricts the export of medicine and medical equipment from the United States and from any United States-owned company abroad.

Amnesty also called on President Barack Obama to end the Trading with the Enemy Act, which is due for renewal on September 14.

The Act has been reviewed by U.S. presidents on an annual basis since 1978. Amnesty said that while not renewing the Act would not in itself end the embargo against Cuba, it would send a clear message that the United States is adopting a new policy toward Cuba.

In April, Obama lifted restrictions that had prevented United States citizens from visiting relatives in Cuba and sending them remittances.

A State Department spokeswoman would not comment on the report because she had not read it. However, she said, "The president believes it makes strategic sense to hold on to some inducements we can use in dealing with a Cuban government if it shows any signs of seeking a normalized relationship with us and begins to respect basic human rights."

The Amnesty report also cites United Nations data that show Cuba's inability to import nutritional products for schools, hospitals and day care centers is contributing to a high prevalence of anemia or iron deficiency anemia.

In 2007, the condition affected 37.5 percent of Cuba's children under 3 years old, according to UNICEF.

Cuba can import these products from other countries, but there are major shipping costs and logistical challenges to contend with.

"In general, the embargo has a sweeping effect on Cuban health care. Over the past decades, I would say the people most affected have been cancer and HIV-AIDS patients," said Gail Reed, international director of MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba), a nonprofit that encourages cooperation among the U.S., Cuban and global health communities.

The embargo affects the way doctors think about the future, she said.

"Doctors in Cuba always worry that an international supplier will be bought out by a U.S. company, leaving medical equipment without replacement parts and patients without continuity of medications," Reed said.

Although medicine and medical supplies can be licensed for export to Cuba, the conditions governing the process make their export virtually impossible, Gerardo Ducos, an Amnesty researcher for the Caribbean region, told CNN.

The United States exported $710 million of food and agricultural products to Cuba in 2008, but only $1.2 million of medical equipment and products, according to the report.

Reed said the embargo does not permit the sale of active ingredients or raw materials to the Cuban pharmaceutical industry.

She gave the example of methotrexate, used to treat breast cancer.

An export license was denied to a firm wanting to sell the U.S.-produced active ingredient to Cuba, to be used in domestic production of the drug on the island, she said.

"Four times as many women may be treated with methotrexate if the drug could be produced domestically, so that Cuban importers were not forced to purchase the finished product on the international pharmaceutical market," she said.

Products patented in the U.S. are covered by the embargo, the report said.

"The latest medicines are usually covered by U.S. patents, which means Cuba must wait several years for the patent to run out before they can buy generic products," Ducos said.

While Cuban officials are responsible for providing health care to their citizens, the effects of sanctions should be considered, Khan said.

"Governments imposing sanctions such as embargoes need to pay special attention to the impact they can have on the targeted country's population," she said.

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