San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Thousands flock to C.R. for health, hope

Year in Review

Costa Rica went through an identity crisis in 2010, at least as far as the health industry is concerned.

On one hand, the country continued to position itself internationally as a platform for innovation, advancement, high quality and affordable health care. But, in many ways, Costa Rica was spinning in circles, or at least digging its heels into the ground in opposition of procedures that have been practiced outside the country for years.

Costa Rica remains one of the only countries in the world to ban in vitro fertilization, a result of a constitutional court ruling in 2000 that found the procedure violated the right to life of an unborn child. In August of this year, the country received notification from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that it must lift the ban in order to comply with international agreements in which it is a signee. Yet compliance has been slowed by the opposition of the church and hesitation on the part of legislators.

Health Ministry officials also booted the country’s only stem cell treatment center in June, saying the ministry never agreed to treatment using stem cells, only research. Neil Riordan, founder of the Stem Cell Institute, told The Tico Times at the time, “The ambiguity of the system is the primary reason for us choosing to consolidate into Panama, where there are clear laws and a black and white situation. In Costa Rica, the situation is too muddy.”

Samuel Flickier, a former member of the institute’s advisory board, said the move was a hit to the country’s medical industry.

“This is very damaging to the future of medicine in Costa Rica,” he said. “The future of medicine is in adult stem cells and nanotechnology which Costa Rica will be closed off from.”

Yet there are many ways in which Costa Rica has been ahead of the curve, at least in medical tourism. Officials continued aggressively marketing the country as a tourist destination for health procedures, successfully landing a contract to host the Medical Travel International Business Summit for the second year in the row.

In October and November, Costa Rica made international headlines for pioneering a technique to treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a procedure that has not been accepted in either Canada or the United States. Nearly 500 North Americans traveled to San José’s Clínica Bíblica Hospital for what had been coined a miracle procedure: “liberation therapy,” in which neck veins are expanded to relieve blood flow from the brain. Some patients contacted by The Tico Times regained the ability to walk or see for the first time in years.

Costa Rica also became the first country in Central America to open a skin bank and, in November, conducted its first transplant using skin grafts from cadavers to cure a 9-year-old boy suffering from cellulitis. The country is currently collecting donations to serve an estimated need of 40 cases a year.

And so, while Costa Rica is in many ways trying to solidify its reputation as a pioneer in medicine and technology, it is driving with the emergency brake on. Tradition, skepticism and its relationship with the Catholic Church are still hindering many could-be or would-be advances.

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