Cuba triples doctors to fight Ebola in Africa

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BY SETH GALINSKY

The Militant

The revolutionary government of Cuba is nearly tripling the number of doctors, nurses and other health workers that it is sending to West Africa to combat the Ebola epidemic there, Havana announced Sept. 25.

Cuban Public Health Minister Roberto Morales had announced two weeks before that 165 volunteers were going to Sierra Leone in early October. But in answer to calls for help by U.N. and World Health Organization officials in the face of the rapid spread of the deadly disease, the Cuban government increased the size of the contingent to 461 volunteers, and expanded its operations to include Guinea-Conakry and Liberia.

“Many countries have offered money, but no other country has offered such a large number of workers to go in and help do the most difficult jobs in this crisis,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, assistant director of the World Health Organization.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez told a U.N. meeting on Ebola Sept. 25 that Cuba “considers that coordination by the United Nations and the leading role of the World Health Organization are essential in guaranteeing collective, coordinated and effective action.”

Rodríguez said that Cuba’s response to the humanitarian crisis “is part of our spirit of solidarity with Africa, which has prevailed for more than five decades.”

French-based Doctors Without Borders has more than 240 foreign health workers fighting the epidemic in six treatment centers in West Africa, along with 2,800 locally-hired staff. Most of them are involved in “health care, water and sanitation in the centers, logistics (supplies) and health promotion activities,” Tim Shenk, Doctors Without Borders press officer, told the Militant. Volunteers with the group, from more than two dozen countries, comprise the main international help on the ground until the Cuban volunteers arrive.

Ebola grows exponentially

As of Sept. 26, more than 6,500 people are known to have been infected with Ebola Zaire, the most deadly of five Ebola strains, and more than 3,080 have died. Because many deaths are not reported, the total number is unknown. In Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, many bodies have “simply been thrown into the two nearby rivers,” according to the World Health Organization. “The current epidemic has been growing exponentially for at least 16 weeks, since May 2014. … The number of new cases has been doubling every 20-30 days.”

Ebola is a virus that is spread primarily through direct contact with body fluids. It impairs kidney and liver function and can cause severe hemorrhaging.

“In this epidemic, each Ebola patient is infecting around 2 other people,” WHO reports, “which means that just a twofold reduction in transmission will be enough to eliminate the virus.”

Traditional burial practices in West Africa — where mourners bathe or touch the deceased — and lack of modern sewage disposal helped lay the basis for the epidemic. There were at most one or two doctors per 100,000 in the three most affected nations prior to the onset of the epidemic. The virtual absence of any public health care system allowed the disease to spread largely undetected for several months.

Overwhelmed clinics in Liberia

In Monrovia, “much of the city’s health system has shut down over fears of Ebola among staff members and patients, leaving many people without treatment for other conditions,” Doctors Without Borders reports. The group has been overwhelmed, turning away patients from its 160-bed center in the Liberian capital.

Treatment for other diseases, births and traffic injuries have also been compromised. In the midst of the high season for malaria, stocks of anti-malarial medicines and bed nets have been depleted.

In Lofa County, Liberia’s breadbasket, nearly 170 farmers and their family members have died and their fields lie unattended.

Out of 15,000 Cuban health care workers who volunteered for the fight against Ebola, Cuban leaders chose 461 men. They will go as part of the Henry Reeve International Brigade, which was formed in 2005, when Cuba’s offer to send 1,586 health care workers to help victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana was snubbed by the U.S. government. They have been undergoing intensive training in coordination with Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization.

“I’m not afraid,” said Julio César Gómez Ramírez, a nurse who is going to West Africa with the brigade. “We’ve been taught to help others. Like many of my compañeros, I participated in the war in Angola [when Cuban volunteers helped defeat invasions by the South African apartheid regime], and we risked our lives there. This isn’t more difficult.”

President Barack Obama also addressed the U.N. gathering on Ebola Sept. 25. He reiterated that Washington would “establish a military command in Liberia to support civilian efforts across the region,” and set up “a field hospital, which will be staffed by personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service, and a training facility.”

“None of the staff in the field are involved in direct patient care or working Ebola treatment units,” Kristen Nordlund, from the Centers for Disease Control Communications Office, told the Militant prior to Obama’s announcement.

Asked if U.S. Public Health Service workers will treat those infected, Kate Miglaccio, a spokesperson for the Health Service, told the Militant Sept. 29 that they would treat health care workers and “continue efforts to build capacity for additional care.”

“The 3,000-strong American mission will not treat patients,” the New York Times reported Sept. 25, “but will build as many as 17 treatment centers, with a total of 1,700 beds, and try to train 500 health workers a week.”

“ It is unclear who will run” the centers once they are built, the Times said.

“We call on the international community, in particular the industrialized states that have great resources, to energetically respond to the call by the United Nations and World Health Organization to immediately provide financial, health and scientific resources to eradicate this scourge,” Cuban Foreign Minister Rodriguez told the U.N. General Assembly Sept. 27.

Cuba maintains medical cooperation with 32 African countries and decided to extend it to the countries most affected by Ebola, Rodríguez said.

Since making the revolution that overthrew the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship in 1959, 325,000 Cuban health care workers have given aid to 158 nations, including 39 in Africa, he said. “We also are training 38,000 doctors from 121 countries without charge, 3,392 of them from 45 African nations.”

“If small and blockaded Cuba can do this, how much more could be done to aid Africa with the cooperation of everybody, in particular the richest nations?” he said.

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