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Cuba has a lung cancer vaccine. Many U.S. patients can’t get it without breaking the law

January 9, 2018

Robert C. Doebele MD, PhD
​George Keays is not a rogue kind of a man. A Colorado real estate agent and grandfather of three, the 65-year-old practices yoga and meditates regularly. But the U.S. government, he says, has left him no choice but to break the law. If, that is, he intends to stay alive.

Keays has stage 4 lung cancer. As his treatment options appeared to be dwindling this fall, he went to Cuba for a vaccine treatment despite a federal law that prohibits Americans from going there for health care. Now, with President Trump’s recent tightening of the regulations governing travel to Cuba, it has become much harder to travel there. But Keays needs more of the vaccine. This spring, he’s going back.

“I am not looking to break the law. But I am not looking to die, either,” Keays declared. “People with stage 4 cancer, like me, should be allowed to try whatever they want to stay alive, whatever they think will work. The last thing they need is the government on your neck over some archaic regulation saying just take what is available here and die.”

Keays has abundant company. In the two years since relations between the U.S. and Cuba were normalized under President Barack Obama, a growing number of lung cancer patients traveled to Cuba for a vaccine called Cimavax, and more recently, a newer vaccine, Vaxira. These patients are an elusive group. None of those who went apparently provided their real reason for going to Cuba when applying for a visa, nor did many of them declare to U.S. customs officials that they were bringing multiple vials of the vaccine into the U.S. on their return. Few even tell their doctors they are taking the injections for fear they will refuse to treat them further.