It was a nightmare. Emergency rooms were flooded with children, and then adults, with symptoms that began with what appeared to be those of a common cold, and then worsened rapidly when treated as such. Within a few day at the end of May 1981, all the country’s hospitals and polyclinics were facing the most lethal epidemic experienced since the triumph of the Revolution, and did not know how the disease had suddenly appeared, or how to stop its spread.
The first cases were reported in the Havana municipality of Boyeros, in an area close to José Martí International Airport. Over the next few months, what was discovered to be hemorrhagic dengue, introduced into Cuba by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), affected 344,203 persons across the country.
Immediately following the first cases in Boyeros, the virus spread across the capital in an almost explosive manner, according to José González Valdés, consulting professor at Havana’s University of Medical Sciences, who in 1981 was the director of the Centro Habana Pediatric Hospital.
Speaking with Granma International (GI), he recalled, “The symptoms of type 2 dengue, spread by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, were becoming common among children in the area of Centro Habana and nearby municipalities: fever; retro-orbital, abdominal, and muscular pain; rash; headache; and asthenia – frequently accompanied by multiple hemorrhages with different degrees of severity. We immediately advised the highest levels of Hygiene and Epidemiology.”
By the first days of June, the Centro Habana Pediatric Hospital, he continued, “became the command center, one could say, to monitor the epidemic and coordinate actions to confront it. Held here were the first meetings with participants from the Ministry of Public Health, Hygiene and Epidemiology, microbiologists, researchers from the Pedro Kourí Hospital of Tropical Medicine, and other directors and professors from pediatric hospitals in the City of Havana.”
On a daily basis, the hospital admitted 400 to 500 sick children, “but on occasion, 1,200 to 1,300 arrived,” Dr. Gonzalez said. During those months, the hospital was obliged to organize three groups of staff members who worked until 5:00pm everyday and stayed in the emergency room for the night, every other day.
“Many stayed permanently,” nurse Bárbara Cristina Viñet Morales told GI. At that time, she was an emergency room nurse at the “Pediatric,” now assistant director of nursing, and one of the few staff members who has remained at the hospital since the 1981 epidemic.
In her 47 years of experience, Bárbara said, she has never again experienced an epidemiological situation like that, “At that time, just 22 years old, the hospital was my home. As the mother I was, with two little ones, I couldn’t bear to see a sick child, or not be here to help, with the families,” she recalled.
According to Dr. Gonzalez, “The entire medical staff at our hospital was focused on taking care of sick children and their families, in their majority of very modest means. The first to show his concern was the Comandante en Jefe. He visited the hospital unannounced nine times. He was well-informed about everything, and always went to see the children, ask them how they felt and what they would like to study when they grew up. They answered, laughed, and the families felt confident, that they could trust him and the doctors treating their little ones.”
Bárbara added, “This was the best experience of those days, to have been so close to Fidel. Once, when the nurses and doctors were giving the Comandante a tour of the hospital, we entered a ward with about 40 beds. All the children there emerged from the oxygen tents that we used at the time and ran to embrace him. One of them shouted: “Pioneers for Communism!” and the rest responded (as they did in school), “We will be like Che!” It was very moving.”
The lowest number of deaths in all the city’s hospitals was recorded at the Pediatric during the epidemic, from the end of May through September, with only two. But according to the doctor, “They were very hard days for everyone. Despite saving many lives, we lost a baby and a seven-year-old girl.”
Bárbara explained to GI, “One of the most traumatic moments was seeing the girl die. She was from Santiago de Cuba and had come to Havana to see her aunt, who was also a nurse at the hospital. We couldn’t do much for the little one. The virus had weakened her immune system too much. Remembering it still fills me with pain and powerlessness.”
These were not isolated events. For years, Cuba had been facing biological attacks meant to affect the people’s health and deliver a blow to the nation’s economy. On June 1, 1964, Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro denounced, for the first time, the United States’ bacteriological war against the country. A few days before his statement, a large number of shiny objects falling from the sky had alarmed the province of Sancti Spíritus.
In his condemnation, published June 2 on the front page of the daily newspaper Revolución, Fidel stated, “Eyewitnesses, among them members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, reported that there were balloons of different sizes… which dissolved upon contact with the earth, leaving a gelatinous substance… similar to that used (in labs) to cultivate bacteria.”
This was only the beginning of what was to become the “most brutal and inhumane” war, that cost lives and incalculable damage. “Imperialism’s lack of scruples and impotence before the consolidation and advance of our Revolution, led them to conceive the most monstrous actions against our country,” Fidel said in his statement.
Over the following years, the nation was struck by porcine fever; Bovine nodular pseudo-dermatosis; brucellosis among cattle; sugar cane mold and rust; tobacco blue mold; coffee rust; poultry New Castle and infectious bronchitis; hemorrhagic conjunctivitis; dysentery; and type two dengue.
Exhaustive studies carried out over the years have shown that every one of these epidemics was deliberately introduced from abroad. Among all the outbreaks, hemorrhagic dengue was the most lethal. Very few Cuban families escaped the epidemic that affected 344,203 persons across the country, leaving 158 dead, including 101 children under 15 years of age.
Neither Dr. González or nurse Bárbara Viñet will ever forget that year when they saw the face of the worst attack Cuba has suffered, a biological one. “Very unlikely that there could be a more dehumanizing war than this one,” the doctor concludes.
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