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Postcards from Cuba

For many Americans, black and white footage of a foreboding American naval blockade, rusting máquinas with whitewall tires and the bearded visage of Fidel Castro pinching a thick cigar between his lips are the images that readily come to mind when we think of Cuba.

But for Robert W. Carr, MD, MPH ’85, a member of the Bloomberg School's Health Advisory Board (HAB), that view is quite different—and far more textured. It will likely surprise many who have clung to preconceptions of the small island 90 miles south of Key West. “In all measures—neonatal, morbidity, access to medicine, infant mortality, elder care—they have better health outcomes than in the United States. That level of commitment to public health was impressive.”

Improving relations with the U.S. allowed Carr and a group of fellow HAB members to make the trip to Cuba in the spring. They were in fine company. Joining them were Dean Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH ’87, and Nobel Prize recipient Peter Agre, MD, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and Director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute. Far from a typical meeting in a boardroom, the visitors learned about the country’s health system, experienced its culture and, in the process, strengthened their bond as a group.

Since 1995, the Board has travelled the world together, including trips to Bangladesh, South Africa, Peru and Uganda, where Bloomberg School faculty and students are hard at work on research projects. But the Cuba experience was different.

Board member C. Sylvia Brown and her husband, Eddie, have made these trips before. Of this particular trip, though, Eddie recalls:

“I was struck by the fact that Cubans not only have universal health care that is accessible to everyone, but that health care is so high quality. It was also just a very exciting time to be there. The people were so excited about opening relations with the U.S. — the experience of seeing the transition in real time was unique.”

This was a foray into a new environment, where board members could examine a different system and consider what elements might be useful in informing their own efforts. The trip also served to energize the group as it guides the school into its second century.

“[Cubans] have better health outcomes than in the United States. That level of commitment to public health was impressive.”

Robert W. Carr, MD, MPH ’85, Health Advisory Board member
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Sylvia Brown appreciated the extraordinary access the group had to Cuban officials—and the friendly reception they received:

“[We] spent the afternoon with Dr. Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, the son of Fidel Castro, who is the scientific advisor of the State Council and a prominent scientist. Throughout the trip, we were just struck by the warmth of the people and also their admiration for Peter Agre. It was a wonderful thing to see him being treated like a rock star.”

For the group, these expeditions provide unparalleled opportunities to see the Bloomberg School’s impact—and to take away lessons that may one day shape the health of communities back home. “We’ve gone to villages and seen Bloomberg School of Public Health folks working side by side with locals to protect lives,” says Eddie Brown. “It’s a tremendous learning experience to see the work in action on the ground—not just reading about it or looking at slides.”