On politics and health: An epidemic of neurologic disease in Cuba
Nervous System Diseases
Political decisions may cause disease. During 1992 and 1993, an epidemic of neuropathy in Cuba--largely overlooked by U.S. physicians--affected more than 50,000 persons and caused optic neuropathy, deafness, myelopathy, and sensory neuropathy. Patients with the neurologic disease responded to B group vitamins, and oral vitamin supplementation of the population curbed the epidemic. Dietary restrictions and excessive carbohydrate intake were the immediated cause of the epidemic; however, the primary cause might have been political. Political changes in eastern Europe had major repercussions on Cuba's economy and food supply. In turn, these changes compounded the effects of internal political decisions in the island, leading toward isolationism and economic dependence on the former Soviet Union. Also, for more than 30 years, the United States has maintained an economic embargo against Cuba. In 1992, the U.S. embargo was tightened by the Torricelli amendment (or the Cuba Democracy Act), which prohibited third-country subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba and prevented food and medicines from reaching the island; this amendment produced a virtual economic blockade. Penuries resulting from all these political events resulted in the largest epidemic of neurologic disease in this century. Physicians may need to use their influence to modify political decisions when these decisions result in adverse health consequences. The American Academy of Neurology has issued a plea to encourage physicians and other health personnel to support efforts leading to lifting of the U.S. embargo against Cuba for humanitarian reasons.