UConn-Cuba Program Advances Health Promotion Research

UConn-Cuba Program Advances Health Promotion Research

By Anna Zarra Aldrich, College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources for UConn Today
June 1, 2021

A collaboration between UConn and seven Cuban institutions is bearing results for collaborative research in health and other fields.

The international research team looked at the impact of social determinants in the onset of cancer, obesity, HIV, and addiction, which are significant public health problems in both Cuba and the US.

They recently published a paper on the fruitful connections and systemic exchanges between both countries in Revista Cubana de Salud Pública (Cuban Journal of Public Health).

“We thought it would be so great because it would bring some more understanding of cultural barriers and sociocultural aspects of Latino populations that could be very beneficial to develop better health promotion initiatives and reduce social inequalities worldwide,” says Tania Huedo-Medina, associate professor from the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.

Cuba and the US have vastly different health care systems. Cuba has a public health care system, meaning all people, regardless of income, have access to health care, with a particular emphasis on preventative care. The US has an expensive private health care system that leaves many underinsured or uninsured.

However, the US has access to more advanced medical technologies and resources than Cuba, an island often cut off from pharmaceuticals, new medical devices, and advanced medical technology.

Despite these challenges, Cuba is known as one of the most efficient and innovative health care systems of the developing world, whose markers of population health compare favorably with those in the US.

“These are two very different countries with many common aspects,” Huedo-Medina says.

Cuba also has free college-level education for its citizens. This means Cuban citizens are generally more aware and informed about health prevention.

“That’s also very important because people are more conscious and have more community support for healthy engagement,” Huedo-Medina says. “The community helps attain more efficacious engagement in prevention. That’s something we need to do a better job of in the US.”

However, the team did find health disparities along racial and gender lines in Cuba and the US.

The goal of this study is to understand the social factors at play and use them to develop more effective psychosocial interventions, leveraging the strengths of both countries.

Taking sociocultural differences into account when developing health promotion strategies is critical. Individuals in different countries face different cultural considerations and social burdens which interventions need to further improve.

This research effort is also wrapping up a study on an alcohol use intervention for adolescents in Cuba.

Huedo-Medina, Ph.D. student Aviana Rosen, and project coordinator Ashley Holmes (CLAS ’20), worked with Cuban researchers Fabelo Roche and Ph.D. candidate Serguei Iglesias to test the well-known Transtheoretical model of behavior change by applying it to a novel intervention.

The researchers studied a group of adolescents between 12 and 18 years old and held intervention sessions to teach them how to prepare traditional Cuban cocktails without alcohol, for example. They found these participants significantly reduced their intentions to use alcohol and significantly increased their perceived alcohol use control, as they were able to prepare non-alcoholic cocktails, but still drink and enjoy them with friends.

The next step for this study is to see if this novel intervention can be implemented more broadly in Cuba and in a different cultural context – the US.

The emphasis of this ongoing collaboration is to understand what these two countries can learn from each other. The research represents the beginning of a long, rewarding collaboration between UConn and institutions in Cuba, but there were challenges along the way.

With the support and collaboration from UConn’s Office of Global Affairs and the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention and Policy (InCHIP), Huedo-Medina set the wheels for this project in motion in 2016 after President Obama opened relations between the US and Cuba, ending a decades-old embargo.

When President Trump reversed the Obama Administration’s move in 2017, much of the initiative was unfortunately put on hold.

Thankfully, Huedo-Medina, her Ph.D. student, Aviana Rosen, and her collaborators at the University of Havana, the Academic Development Center for Drug Use (CEDRO) at the University of Medical Sciences of Havana, and the Center of Wellbeing from the Central University “Marta Abreu” of the Villas, were able to work on an ethnographic study about an academic-scientific collaboration between health-related researchers from Cuba and the US. The collaborators brainstormed psychosocial interventions to prevent the development of chronic diseases in Cuba and the US. The researchers looked at cancer, obesity, HIV, and addiction, specifically alcohol use.

“We’re grateful for the support of the University and our partners to move this project forward,” says Huedo-Medina. “The importance of developing bilateral relations between both countries in the scientific and academic fields is that it builds respect and reciprocity,” Huedo-Medina says.

Read the full article on UConn Today. To learn more about UConn Global's work in Cuba, follow this link.