How Cuba is leading the international fight against Ebola

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Marco Werman: Fewer US troops in Afghanistan these days, but a grower American military contingent in West Africa. The Pentagon has pledged to deploy up to 4,000 US military personnel to help tackle the Ebola epidemic there. Some troops are there already, building Ebola Treatment Units. But when it comes to sending medical personnel to Africa, there’s another country that’s punching way above its weight -- Cuba. 165 Cuban health workers are already in West Africa, and 300 more are on the way. Gail Reed is a journalist based in Cuba and the founder of the US nonprofit, Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba. I asked her to describe the Cuban medical force dispatched to West Africa.


Gail Reed: As far as I know and as far as the World Health Organization has said, it is the single largest contingent from any country and involves actually more nurses than doctors, and a few other specialists. But they are also hands-on patient care people. They’re not hanging back and looking at overall plans. They’re actually at patient’s bedsides.


Werman: I know Cuba has the largest medical school in the world, which I only learned today, and a lot of these professionals go to a lot of very remote places -- how many of these professionals are going on their own volition, volunteering, effectively?


Reed: I tramped through some of the mock field hospitals that were set up at the Tropical Medicine Institute in Havana and talked with a few of them. They’re all volunteers. There’s no doubt about it. They’ve been on these kinds of missions before and, in fact, of the many thousands of volunteers that have actually signed up, the Cuban Health Ministry has only chosen the most experienced with both disaster and epidemic situations. But they are definitely volunteers. They’ve told their families “We want to be there, and we also want to come home.”


Werman: Does the Cuban government encourage these people to go, or is there just a culture in Cuba of medical professionals giving back once they get their degrees?


Reed: I think it’s part of a culture. Their first disaster response team left for Chile after an earthquake there in 1960, when Cuba only had 3,000 doctors. Now it has over 80,000. But all through the years, it’s been part of the culture. Right now, for example, there are 50,000 Cuban healthcare professionals in 66 different countries.


Werman: Why is that? Is it a relic of the socialist period, which some people are saying has kind of diluted? What do you attribute that to?


Reed: It’s something that most professionals are very clear that they sign up for when they sign up to be a doctor or a nurse in Cuba. The basic principle is “I will go where I’m most needed.”


Werman: The US military has about 539 service members currently in West Africa fighting the outbreak, and that number is expected to grow to about 3,200 over the next month. Can you imagine the Cubans and the US military working together in West Africa?


Reed: Well, I certainly hope so. We have some good news in the State Department recognizing Cuba’s contribution -- but I remember back in 1998, when Hurricane Mitch had almost devastated most of Central America. Some Cuban doctors who were stranded on a little piece of beach. There was a US army helicopter that flew down -- the pilot said “I was sent to find some doctors here.” The Cubans said “We’re Cubans.” The US pilot said “But you’re doctors, right?” And they said “Yes,” and he said “Well, hop on.” So, I’d like to see that be policy.


Werman: We keep hearing how the crisis really needs to be addressed at the root in West Africa. Without guilt tripping US medical professionals, what do you draw from the example of those Cuban medical professionals who have gone to Guinea and Liberia and Sierra Leone?


Reed: This is a problem that the world has to address. It’s not Africa’s problem. There’s a moment where you have to feel, as a health professional, that you’ve been trained, you’re the person who can help resolve that problem, and you may be one of the only people who can. So, it’s time to step up, and I think that’s the example that we get from the Cubans.


Werman: Gail Reed is a journalist based in Cuba and she’s founder of the US nonprofit, Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba. Gail, thanks very much for telling us about this.


Reed: You’re welcome. Thank you.