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It's particularly complicated for patients in the United States because an embargo prohibits any product of Cuban origin — be it medicine, a cigar, or a T-shirt — from entering the country, but companies say they have ways of getting the product to clients in the States regardless.
Physicians both on the island and abroad are careful in their judgment of the blue scorpion toxin. Questioned about the venom, several of Cuba's leading scientists shifted in their chairs. They have a powerful international reputation to protect. When the island lost its Soviet income in the 1990s, Fidel Castro's government decided to invest heavily in biotechnology as a potential long-term industry. The gamble paid off: Cuba has developed a top-tier research program and landmark achievements to show for it. Cuban scientists discovered the world's first human vaccine with a synthetic antigen for Haemophilus influenzae type B. They publish frequently in prestigious journals and have hundreds of patents in more than 50 countries for 13 different oncologic, autoimmune, infectious-disease, and cardiovascular projects. Their efforts are often lauded by U.S. and European scientists as well as international agencies such as the World Health Organization.
As the scorpion's fame outpaces other, more proven Cuban medical discoveries, there's worry that the little-studied natural treatment could tarnish the country's hard-earned reputation — or, worse, do greater harm. When a Greek TV program more than a decade ago highlighted a young boy who had been saved by Monzón's venom, Monzón told the media at the time: "Now half of the world is coming to see me. I don't want to raise people's expectations."
Indeed, every cancer expert consulted for this article, even those who have witnessed remarkable results, agrees that prudence is the best option. "It is wrong to play with the hopes of people in such desperate situations," says Di Lorenzi, the Roman doctor.
Back at his house, Leandro wears a jean jacket to protect against the Cuban winter's cool breeze. He's playing with his pet turtle. "I named her Cuca!" he says excitedly. The boy was sad to see his dog go when he became ill, but his mom was concerned that the fur and dirt might threaten her son's fragile health. Similarly, Leandro's parents keep him away from large crowds.
Yaima also prefers that he ride his bike only in the backyard. "Just until he gets better," she says, though no one knows whether he will make a full recovery. She doesn't seem bothered by the uncertainty; she began this therapy with her eyes open and knows there are no guarantees. She's just glad her son has a shot at surviving.
As a reporter and a photographer prepare to leave, the boy gives high-fives. Then he slaps the hand of the driver, whom he'll see again soon: It's the same driver in the same white van that drops off his free medicine a few times a month. Leandro thought New Times was there to take him for a visit to his physician. The miracle child can't conceive of his questionable future. But he already knows what he wants to be when he grows up: "a doctor."