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Six-year-old Leandro Gonzáles sits attentively at the foot of his parents' double bed, his legs dangling along the faded flower-print bedspread. His tiny brown eyes follow Dr. Niudis Cruz's index finger left, right, up, and down. He rolls back and stretches his arms toward the ceiling for a count of ten. Then Dr. Cruz, a sandy-haired cancer specialist in her 40s, slips her lean fingers into the small boy's hands, and he squeezes tightly. "Good, good," the doctor says, nodding.
Yaima, the boy's quiet, petite mother, stands to the side, holding her breath as Leandro completes his bimonthly physical exam. Her boy has an inoperable tumor in his brain stem, and she's watched the ritual countless times. But seeing him push his legs forcefully against the doctor's hand still brings tears of relief to her eyes. A little more than a year ago, he was immobile and virtually mute.
When the exam concludes, Cruz rattles off doctor-speak about the child's muscle strength, response mechanisms, and the Lansky scale, an internationally recognized quality-of-life indicator for child cancer patients (he's a 90; 100 is perfect health). She whips out her laptop and pulls up the black-and-white CT scan images of Leandro's brain. "His is the most aggressive of all pediatric cancers, with an 80 percent mortality rate within one year," she says.
She points toward the images on the screen and measurements of the tumor's progression since its detection 18 months ago. From September 2011 to April 2012, it decreased in size approximately 15 percent. During that period, Leandro underwent no treatment other than swallowing doses of clear, tasteless liquid three times daily. "It's scientifically impossible for a tumor to shrink on its own," the doctor emphasizes. "It has to be the result of some outside intervention."
Intervention for Leandro has been the venom of a medium-size scorpion called Rhopalurus junceus, known in Cuba as the escorpión azul — blue scorpion. Four months after he was diagnosed in May 2011, Leandro's weight had fallen to that of a 2-year-old. But after consuming the venom-water mixture, his health has returned almost to normal. He can now walk and tell you about his favorite food (sunny-side-up eggs) and color (yellow), and he rides his bike (with training wheels) daily. "I give thanks to God," Yaima says, "and to the doctors who knew about the scorpion."
For more than 20 years, Cubans have been treating cancer patients with blue scorpion venom. And there have been too many Leandros to dismiss the miraculous recoveries as coincidence. Even when the results aren't quite as jaw-dropping, thousands attest to pain relief, increased muscle strength, and renewed energy while on the medicine.
The treatment is now poised for a global premiere. Cuba's state pharmaceutical company, Labiofam, recently began mass-producing a homeopathic version called Vidatox. A handful of countries have registered it for sale, and a small black market to move the product around the globe has emerged. It's impossible to know how many patients have imbibed the venom treatment from the small glass bottles over the past two decades, but the number is likely more than 55,000 globally.
Curing cancer such as Leandro's has arguably become the medical world's greatest conundrum. According to the World Health Organization, the disease killed approximately 7.6 million people in 2008, 13 percent of all deaths worldwide. Despite the billions of dollars invested in research, our treatment fallbacks — chemotherapy and radiation — are woefully inadequate. Doctors are only 7.3 percent more successful at treating cancer than they were in 1950, and it's expected that by 2030, twice the number of people will die from the disease as do today, predicts the World Health Organization.
"It's hard for people to let go of believing only in conventional treatments," says Labiofam's director, Dr. José Antonio Fraga, a big man with a big mustache. He speaks from behind his director-size desk at the sprawling state pharmaceutical company in Havana that, until recently, was best known for supplying 98 percent of Cuba's veterinary products.
He chooses his words carefully. "We have not found a cure, and we do not suggest that people refuse chemotherapy or radiation," he says. "But human medicine is based on evidence." And his evidence cannot be overlooked.
Perhaps the best-known case of blue scorpion success is that of Yarislenis Abreu, a shy 15-year-old who goes by "Yari" and lives in the third-floor apartment of concrete housing in the town of Valle Honda, near Cuba's western edge. She remembers being "a vegetable" just five years ago. The right half of her body was paralyzed, and she could form thoughts in her mind but couldn't express the words. At age 10, her brain tumor was growing weekly, radiation had failed, and her doctors sent her home to die.
Her mother, Iraíde, refused to give up hope and sent Yari's father on a mission: He was to bring back the scorpion medicine a fellow cancer patient's mom said could be obtained free in a nearby province. A month later, Iraíde recalls of her daughter, "She was yelling at me: 'Mom, get me out of this bed!' " Since then, Yari has learned to walk again and write with her left hand, because her right is still smaller and weaker from the paralysis. She studies with a state-paid tutor at home and hopes to start normal high school soon. She has not missed a day of the venom medicine — and has a new weekly routine. Saturday nights, she walks two miles roundtrip to the nearest reggaeton dance club. "My mom jokes that it's like my church," Yari says, "because I go every weekend without fail."