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The Cure?

A FOLK MEDICINE MADE FROM A MYSTERIOUSLY
EFFECTIVE SCORPION-VENOM EXTRACT HAS BEEN
QUIETLY ADOPTED AS A “PAINKILLER” AND
“ANTI-INFLAMMATORY” BY CUBA'S CUTTING-EDGE
PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY. BUT THE DESPERATE BELIEVE IT TO BE NOTHING LESS THAN THE HOLY
GRAIL OF CANCER TREATMENTS.


By Silvana Paternostro
PHOTOs BY Sven Creutzmann


On a Thursday morning in the remote village of Jagüey Grande in the Cuban countryside, 130 kilometers (81 miles) southeast of Havana, a handful of people wait in front of a one–story cream–colored house. Orlando hitched a ride from Havana. Elena walked. Gricel rode her bike from the hamlet next door. Jesús traveled five hours by bus. Vivian, who showed up in a chauffeured black Mercedes–Benz, came all the way from Greece. Orlando has a tumor in his neck.
Elena, a swollen bladder. Gricel's sister has cancer of the uterus; Jesús has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Vivian is here for her husband, who stayed behind in Greece, too sick with lung cancer to travel. They all carry the same thing: bottled water and plenty of hope.
      The house belongs to José Felipe Monzón, a hotel manager turned alternative doctor, although perhaps “folk healer” is a more appropriate description. He holds no medical degrees, yet spends his days receiving sick people or their relatives and looking over clinical charts, trying to decide who would be a good candidate for a scientifically untested treatment that many claim can cure cancer—a concoction made of distilled water and a few drops of scorpion venom. The scorpion, native to central Cuba, is known as alacrán azul—“blue scorpion”—although it is not always blue. Its “miracle” poison, branded Escozul, is mixed


Jagüey Grande, Cuba, 2004
A blue scorpion bred by José Felipe Monzón for its venom.



with water and is generally taken orally, a spoonful at a time.
      In May, the tumor on Orlando's neck was diagnosed as benign, but doctors recommended surgery. Orlando chose Escozul instead. He swears the tumor is much smaller now, and in any case he feels much healthier. “Of course,” he says, “it doesn' t work on everyone.” He heard of the treatment from a friend who was in the last stages of brain cancer. When his friend started the treatment, doctors had given him three months to live. He lasted four. It obviously didn't work. Orlando, who has been following the scarce reports published in the local newspapers, says that the patients thought to respond best to Escozul are those in the initial stages of illness who have not undergone radiation or chemotherapy.
      Cuba has a strong tradition of folk healing, explains Orlando. “So we're always hearing
Cuba has a strong tradition of folk healing, says Orlando. ”So we're always hearing of a new one for cancer.“ of a new one for cancer. A few years ago it was the anamu plant that cows eat. Soon the fad disappears. This one has stuck.”
      In the last 13 or so years, despite the wariness of the Cuban medical community, an estimated 70,000 people have been treated with Escozul. Of the patients treated by the cure's pioneer, Misael Bordier, 97 percent report feeling better. These are such apparently phenomenal results that the medical authorities have begun to overcome their skepticism. Labiofam, a government pharmaceutical lab, is now testing it on 600–plus patients in conjunction with traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation—and like all things medical in Cuba, it's free. (Monzón doesn't charge for it either, but he does accept donations.) The lab is careful about how it refers to the substance, labeling it a painkiller and anti–inflammatory, but there is
no official qualification of it as an anticarcinogenic.
      Bordier, a biologist from Guantánamo, began breeding the blue scorpion, native to Cuba, in the early 1980s and experimentally treating mice and dogs with its venom—just as many spider and snake venoms are used around the world by healers for a variety of ailments.
      It soon became clear to Bordier that the mice and dogs were responding to the diluted venom preparation. Remarkably, their tumors were visibly shrinking with continued treatment. Word came to Monzón, who would listen to anyone who had anything hopeful to say about cures, no matter what they were or where they were, because his 15–year–old daughter was in the late stages of pancreatic cancer, which, despite four years of chemotherapy and radiation, had spread to her liver and intestines. Just like many of the people standing at his front door today,




Monzón traveled a great distance in search of a miracle cure he'donly heard rumors of.
      Upon meeting Bordier, who at that point had never tried the solution on humans, Monzón asked for some for his daughter, Niurys. Month after month, Monzón made the 14–hour–trip every time Niurys ran out of the venom. In 1993, this kind of travel was only for the truly despairing. Three years after the end of Soviet subsidies, Cuba was experiencing a draconian gasoline shortage. “It could easily take two or three days to get there,” says Orlando. But something must have been working. Monzón's daughter's recovery was so striking that friends, neighbors, and strangers started asking Monzón to please bring them scorpion poison too. Monzón complied every time.
     Although the scorpions reproduce prodigiously—a litter ranges from 35 to 70 babies—the production of poison is both
slow and extremely minimal. The scorpions aren't “milked” until they are one year old, and they only produce one drop of poison every 20 days. Bordier soon decided he had to expand availability. He gave some scorpions to Monzón, who set up his own breeding and treatment center. For many years, it was a two-man operation: Bordier in Guantánamo, Monzón in Jagüey Grande. Dismissed at first by the medical authorities, the men would not be thwarted. They kept dispensing poison and continued their research, keeping track of their patients' health. “In my experience,” says Monzón, “15 percent of those who've come to see me have terminal cancer, and there is little chance for them to be cured, but the venom does help them feel better, helps with their quality of life.” Of the remaining 85 percent, according to Monzón, 30 percent have reportedly
gone into remission, and the other 55 percent, though not cured, have felt better and lived longer.
     Word of these statistics spread to the burgeoning biotech industry in Cuba—improbably one of the most advanced in the world. In the last 15 years, Cuba, left to fend for itself after the Soviet Union became non– communist Russia, developed a massive biotechnology industry. Today it supplies all manner of pharmaceuticals, including a meningitis vaccine, to over 30 countries. Its research and development of a vaccine for lung and other cancers is considered so critical that this past June, the US government was forced to break its 43–year– trade embargo, allowing CancerVax, based in California, USA, to set up a joint venture with the Cuban government. (CancerVax pays its share not in cash but in medicine, medical supplies, and food.) As for Escozul, any potential cooperation remains top–secret.




Cuban authorities refused to talk about the blue scorpion.
     Journalists make Monzón very nervous these days. He recently gave an interview to a Greek television program for a story about a sick boy whose rich family brought him to Monzón to be treated. “Now half of the world is coming to see me,” he says. “I don't want to raise people's expectations.” Not that his belief in the cure is faltering, but he fears he won't be able to treat as many as he would like. This is an artisan's preparation,” he says. And no matter how much more venom Monzón might need, it is ultimately up to his scorpions. He now has 4,000 and has hired a full–time breeder, but the scorpions' output remains frustratingly small. There has been, in fact, considerable speculation that the Cuban government may be quietly trying to genetically engineer or chemically synthesize the venom—which could explain why the authorities are keeping so quiet on the subject.
     Still, there is no indication that the Escozul craze will stop any time soon. Information (and rumors) about the treatment is now easily found on the internet, including the Escozul Cancer Treatment Forum.
     Meanwhile, oncologists like Dr. Donald Morton, the director and chief surgeon of the John Wayne Cancer Institute in California, USA, and an adviser to CancerVax with the Cuban collaboration, are skeptical: “It is a disservice to science and unfair to give these people false hopes.” But scant scientific research, wary oncologists, and remote provincial locations are still not enough to keep cancer sufferers and their loved ones from thinking of the potion as a holy grail.
     Monzón looks at Vivian's husband's medical chart and realizes it' s in English, so he calls out for his daughter' s help with the translation. The Escozul poster child comes
out of the kitchen, where she spends most days mixing venom with the bottled water that patients bring. Standing between her father and his visitor, she reads the chart and reaches over to take the bottles of water that Vivian is holding. Monzón is agitated. He'd like to give Vivian a year' s supply. “How can I send this woman who came all the way to see me back to Greece with nothing?” he says, as his apparently healthy daughter comes back into the room and hands Vivian a three-month supply of Escozul.

—with additional reporting from Cuba by Honore de Dosto  


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