Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

Cuban Medical Internationalism: The Ebola Campaign of 2014-15

Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

Cuban Medical Internationalism: The Ebola Campaign of 2014-15

Article excerpt

The Cuban doctors were oblivious to the risks faced. They instead declared that they were our brothers from across the ocean and came to help us as brothers.

- Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan, Minister of Foreign Relations, Liberia

By early April 2015, some 256 Cuban doctors and nurses, members of the Henry Reeve Brigade, had returned home after a gruelling six-month stint working in West Africa. In early October 2014, following a worldwide request from the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Margaret Chan, they had arrived to deal with the outbreak of Ebola, which had decimated several countries in West Africa. Speaking in September 2014, Chan made the greatest needs extremely clear:

Money and materials are important but those two things alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission ... Human resources are clearly our most important need. We need most especially compassionate doctors and nurses, who will know how to comfort patients despite the barriers of wearing PPE (personal protective equipment) and working under very demanding conditions.1

The disease had devastated the area. By 1 April 2015, a total of 25,178 cases had been reported, with over 10,000 reported deaths. By early May, after the WHO had declared Liberia free of Ebola, the figures remained staggering - more than 11,000 people had died of the 26,593 cases. Of the dead, 66 per cent were women, and 22 per cent were children. Among those who contracted the disease, there were 869 confirmed cases of medical personnel, including 507 deaths.2 Indeed, one of the Cuban doctors, Félix Báez, contracted the disease. He was treated in Switzerland and, after recovering, returned to work in Sierra Leone.

In Western Europe and North America, the initial months of the epidemic resulted in mass panic. The WHO appealed for medical personnel to help in West Africa but few answered the call. Havana, though, responded immediately. Significantly, Cuba was the first country to respond to the UN appeal and had the largest medical contingent. José Luis Di Fabio, representative of the WHO and based in Havana, referred to the 'incredible response capacity of Cuba' to crisis situations.3

This article examines the Cuban response to Ebola in West Africa, specifically in the three countries where the Cuban medical personnel arrived - Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It analyses the background context in West Africa as the disease rapidly spread, the international response and the Cuban reaction. In particular, it assesses the impact of Cuba's contribution and concludes with some thoughts about what can be learned from this short (6-month) campaign of the Henry Reeve Contingent, which specialises in responding to natural disasters and medical emergencies.4

Background to cuba's medical internationalism

There are few countries that have the length of experience in delivering medical cooperation compared with Cuba. Starting in 1960, when the first medical mission was sent abroad to Chile (following a devastating earthquake), Cuba has provided over 130,000 medical personnel to work in developing nations. In 2005, this decades-long tradition was consolidated in the Henry Reeve Contingent, with the specific mission of providing support in the case of natural disasters and medical epidemics, and within months Cuba had sent 2,400 medical staff and established 32 field hospitals in the Kashmir region. When they left in January 2006, they donated the field hospitals and granted 1,000 scholarships to local students to study medicine in Cuba - the last of whom graduated in 2015.

In 2010, the Cubans again played a leading role in Haiti after the earthquake and subsequent cholera epidemic there. (In fact, several hundred Cubans were already there having arrived in 1998 when Hurricane Georges devastated the country's impoverished economy and left over 400 dead.) The Cubans were the first to arrive, bolstering the number of some 300 Cuban medical personnel already there, and since then have had a steady medical presence of between 200 and 300 healthcare workers while also training over 1,000 Haitian doctors (at no charge to the students) in Cuba. …

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