Worth the sting: Cuba’s scorpion pain remedy

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Farmer Pepe Casanas is stung by a scorpion in Los Palacios, Cuba, December 5, 2018. (REUTERS)
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A worker extracts venom from a scorpion to produce homeopathic medicine Vidatox at LABIOFAM, the Cuban state manufacturer of medicinal and personal hygienic products, in Cienfuegos, Cuba, December 3, 2018. (REUTERS)
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A worker prepares bottles of homeopathic medicine Vidatox at LABIOFAM, the Cuban state manufacturer of medicinal and personal hygienic products in Cienfuegos, Cuba, December 3, 2018. (REUTERS)
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A worker shows a scorpion used for venom extraction at LABIOFAM, the Cuban state manufacturer of medicinal and personal hygienic products in Cienfuegos, Cuba, December 3, 2018. (REUTERS)
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Workers prepare boxes with bottles of homeopathic medicine Vidatox at LABIOFAM, the Cuban state manufacturer of medicinal and personal hygienic products, in Cienfuegos, Cuba, December 3, 2018. (REUTERS)
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A worker removes a scorpion from a plastic container for venom extraction to produce homeopathic medicine Vidatox at LABIOFAM, the Cuban state manufacturer of medicinal and personal hygienic products in Cienfuegos, Cuba, December 3, 2018. (REUTERS)
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Farmer Pepe Casanas poses with a scorpion in Los Palacios, Cuba, December 5, 2018. Picture taken December 5, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 16 December 2018

Worth the sting: Cuba’s scorpion pain remedy

  • In Cuba, where tens of thousands of patients have been treated with Vidatox, each vial costs under a dollar
  • The scorpions are caught in the wild as Labiofam workers believe their venom — which is not dangerous — is not as potent when raised in captivity

HAVANA: Once a month for the last decade, Pepe Casanas, a 78-year-old Cuban farmer, has hunted down a scorpion to sting himself with, vowing that the venom wards off his rheumatism pains.
His natural remedy is no longer seen as very unusual here.
Researchers in Cuba have found that the venom of the blue scorpion, whose scientific name is Rhopalurus junceus, endemic to the Caribbean island, appears to have anti-inflammatory and pain relief properties, and may be able to delay tumor growth in some cancer patients.
While some oncologists abroad say more research is needed to be able to properly back up such a claim, Cuban pharmaceutical firm Labiofam has been using scorpion venom since 2011 to manufacture the homeopathic medicine Vidatox.
The remedy has proven popular.
Labiofam Business Director Carlos Alberto Delgado told Reuters sales were climbing 10 percent annually. Vidatox already sells in around 15 countries worldwide and is currently in talks with China to sell the remedy there.
In Cuba, where tens of thousands of patients have been treated with Vidatox, each vial costs under a dollar. On the black market abroad it can cost hundred times that — retailers on Amazon.com are seen selling them for up to $140.
“I put the scorpion where I feel pain,” Casanas said while demonstrating his homemade pain relief with a scorpion that he found under a pile of debris on the patch of land he cultivates in Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Rio.
After squeezing it long enough, it stung him and he winced.
“It hurts for a while, but then it calms and goes and I don’t have any more pain,” he said.
Casanas, a leathery-skinned former tobacco farmer who now primarily grows beans for his own consumption, said he sometimes keeps a scorpion under his straw hat like a lucky charm.
It likes the shade and humidity, he says, so just curls up and sleeps.

FROM FARM TO LAB
In a Labiofam laboratory in the southern Cuban city of Cienfuegos, workers dressed in scrubs and hairnets tend to nearly 6,000 scorpions housed in plastic containers lined up on rows of metal racks.
Every few days they feed and water the arachnids that sit on a bed of small stones. Once a month, they apply an 18V electrical jolt to their tails using a handcrafted machine in order to trigger the release of a few drops of venom.
The venom is then diluted with distilled water and shaken vigorously, which homeopathic practitioners believe activates its “vital energy.”
The scorpions are caught in the wild as Labiofam workers believe their venom — which is not dangerous — is not as potent when raised in captivity.
After two years of exploitation in the “escorpionario,” they are released back into the wild.
Dr. Fabio Linares, the head of Labiofam’s homeopathic medicine laboratory who developed the medicine, said Vidatox stimulates the body’s natural defense mechanisms.
“After four to five years (of taking it), the doctor whose care I was in told me that my cancer hadn’t advanced,” said Cuban patient Jose Manuel Alvarez Acosta, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008.
Still, Labiofam recommends Vidatox as a supplemental treatment and says it should not replace conventional ones.


Egyptian start-up Shamseya empowers people with medical information

Updated 13 December 2019

Egyptian start-up Shamseya empowers people with medical information

  • Online portal helps citizens find health services and hospitals suited to their needs
  • Aim is to develop new service to allow patients to locate exact services by phone

DUBAI: Cairo-born entrepreneur Ayman Sabae had long wanted to tackle the inadequacies of the Egyptian health care system. But it took the historic events of the Arab Spring to spark his eureka moment.

“It was a very vivid time in my life. For over two weeks, the protesters were put in a position where they had to function as a community to meet their daily needs,” Sabae said of the 2011 Egyptian uprising.

“I saw first-hand how people had to tackle everything from scratch without government help; they came together and created makeshift health clinics to address their own needs.

“It showed me that people are capable of self-organizing based on what people want — not simply because faceless executives decide what is best for them.”

Soon after the Egyptian revolution began, Sabae launched Shamseya, a health startup that puts people at its core.

“I founded my startup with the intention of creating tools that give power to the people,” he said. “Shamseya seeks the creation of a dynamic, community-based health care system.”

Egyptian entrepreneur Ayman Sabae. (Supplied)

According to Sabae, most Egyptians are eligible for social health insurance but much of the population misses out on quality health care due to national inaccessibility of information.

“A lot of people don’t get access to what’s best for them because they don’t know what’s available, they get lost in bureaucracy, or they are worried about the poor quality of services,” he said.

Shamseya, which runs on both grants and private consulting fees, has launched an online portal to help Egyptian patients find the health services and hospitals that are suited to their needs.

The Eghospitals platform is populated with data inputted by NGO or community members who conduct “mystery patient” tests at hospitals.

The results are collated into a comprehensive nationwide portal, which ranks and rates hospitals based on their specialities.

“The idea behind Eghospitals is to hold hospitals accountable with ad-hoc inspections,” said Sabae.

Each hospital receives an online rating, as well as physical signs that can be placed at the hospital premises as badges of trust.

The organization is also working on adding niche ratings, such as youth, women and disability-friendly facilities.

“Historically, there has hardly been any accurate or credible information in Egypt that enables people to make informed decisions about their treatment,” Sabae said.

“In Egypt, people tend to use word-of-mouth for health recommendations but this only reflects subjective experiences; it’s not sufficient for specific treatments. This is why we designed a patient-centric tool for the quality of hospitals.”

Shamseya, which describes itself broadly as a health solutions company, has also developed a platform that allows patient grievances to be flowed through the correct channels.

The platform, Melior, delivers valuable information about complaints to stakeholders across the health care system.

According to Sabae, the organization also has plans in the offing to develop a personalized citizen’s support program that guides people on how best to benefit from the Egyptian health care system.

Dubbed “El Naseh,” the initiative is designed to allow Egyptians to pick the phone and locate the exact services they need.

“The aim is to avoid lots of parallel systems and to maximize the efficiency of the national health care system. It’s about maximizing what we already have in the country,” Sabae said.

“Ultimately, the entrepreneur believes that the sustainability of any meaningful health care reform relies on ensuring full community engagement in the design, implementation and monitoring of the programs.”

Looking to the future, Sabae said: “Ideally speaking, I would hope for the full implementation of a universal health care system that would provide quality health care for all, regardless of their income, gender, geography, or social background.

“The only way this is possible is with a system that listens to the people, gives them choices and allows for feedback. A futuristic health system needs to be patient-centric — this is the only way to build a sustainable health care system.”

 

• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.