Veterinary conference in Cuba establishes cross-country collaboration

Since the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations last year, exchange between the two countries is blooming, with benefits for both sides.

Last month, a conference organized by School of Veterinary Medicine alumna Louise Wechsler aimed to take advantage of these new opportunities to support Cuban clinicians, show American veterinarians the beauty and richness of Cuba, and foster collaboration between Cuban and U.S. veterinarians and scientists.

“There is a hunger for knowledge among Cuban veterinarians,” says Wechsler. “They understand perfectly well what they’re lacking, and they’re lacking almost everything you can imagine.”

Oriol Sunyer, a professor of immunology and pathobiology at Penn Vet, shared with the meeting delegates his research on fish immunology and vaccine development as well as his keen interest in marine conservation. The visit also helped him lay the groundwork for a burgeoning Cuban-U.S. initiative destined to bridge conservation with research and education in Jardines de la Reina, an area in Cuba that is home to some of the most pristine coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Wechsler, who has been traveling regularly to Cuba for the last two decades, says that while Cuba is home to many well-trained and dedicated veterinarians, a lack of capital impedes their work. Most make do with technology that is decades old.

As part of the conference, Wechsler encouraged the nearly 30 American attendees, several Penn Vet alumni included, to bring supplies—everything from painkillers and antibiotics to gloves and syringes—to donate to their Cuban counterparts in areas of greatest need.

“There were probably hundreds of pounds of veterinary products donated,” Wechsler says. “That was very gratifying to see.”

The heart of the conference, which was simultaneously translated between Spanish and English, was two days of presentations on subjects such as Cuban wildlife, infectious disease concerns in Cuba, and CPR best practices. The group then traveled around the country, taking in cultural sites in Havana as well as visiting smaller villages, natural attractions, and an animal reserve.

Wechsler and Sunyer are hopeful the gathering will serve as a launching pad for further interactions between the countries, something Sunyer has already been exploring through a research partnership on vaccine development with Cuban researcher Mario Pablo Estrada Garcia, director of agricultural biotechnology research for the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana.

“The earlier we start establishing bonds and collaboration in Cuba,” says Sunyer, “the better position we’ll be in to make our presence valuable. It’s an interaction that’s positive not only for Cubans but for us too; there’s a lot to be gained for everyone.”

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