Africa: Cuba deploys ‘world’s finest medics’ to Ebola-hit Sierra Leone

Doctors from all over the Third World are trained for free at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, which is one of the world’s most advanced medical schools.

By Ségolène Allemandou

September 22, 2014 -- France 24 -- Cuba is joining the fight against Ebola by sending a 165-strong army of doctors and specialists to West Africa. Despite decades of financial hardship, the communist country remains at the forefront of the world’s medical expertise and know-how.

The team, which includes doctors, nurses, epidemiologists and intensive care specialists, is due to touch down in Sierra Leone in the beginning of October.

Margaret Chan, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), has hailed it as the “largest offer of a foreign medical team from a single country” since the start of the outbreak. So far, the deadly Ebola virus has claimed more than 2600 lives in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Although Cuba has suffered from a full economic embargo imposed by the United States since the early 1960s, the island remains one of the best training grounds for health care professionals.

“Cuba is known the world over for its ability to train excellent doctors and nurses”, WHO said, which has previously described the island nation as “a role odel” when it comes to its proactive medical approach and research.

Cuba’s demographic statistics confirm that opinion: the country enjoys the highest average life expectancy in the Americas, at 78 years old. It also has the lowest infant mortality rate, at just 4.2 per one thousand babies born.

‘Health a top priority’

“Health has always been the Cuban government’s top priority”, Latin America expert Jean Ortiz said. According to Cuba’s National Statistics Office, the country has the highest share of doctors per capita – one per 137 inhabitants.

According to Stéphane Witkowski, the head of the Institute of Latin American Studies in Paris (IHEAL), Cuba is also “among the world leaders within the pharmaceutical sector”, adding that it “houses the largest biotechnology centre in the world, with 20,000 staff”.

Cuba’s other strong point is the quality of its medical training. United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon recently described Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) as the “world’s most advanced” school for medicine studies. The school has 11,000 students from more than 120 countries.

‘Medical diplomacy’

Ever since the Cuban revolution in 1959, the country has a tradition of applying “medical diplomacy” to foster positive relationships with its neighbours and other countries. In all, the communist regime – led by Fidel Castro and his brother Raul – has deployed more than 135,000 health-care specialists to country’s struck by natural disasters and other humanitarian crises.

According to the Cuban health ministry, there are currently 50,000 Cuban doctors and health-care specialists in 66 countries around the world.

One of Cuba’s most celebrated medical contributions include “Operation Miracle”, an eye surgery program launched in Venezuela in 2004 to offer Latin American low-income earners free eye surgery and optical care. In exchange for the Cuban contribution, Venezuela provides Cuba with oil.

Since the launch of the program, more than 2.8 million people have received free glasses and contact lenses. The program has since been extended to cover 14 Latin American countries.

Even though Cuba’s medical sector has been hit hard by the country’s strained economy, Witkowski said “the quality of the country’s doctors, and in particular its psychiatrists and GPs, remains indisputable”.

In Brazil, more than 10,000 Cuban doctors have been deployed to poverty-struck areas abandoned by their local colleagues. Earlier this year, Cuba also launched a malaria vaccination campaign in some 15 countries in West Africa.

But the expertise doesn’t come for free. Cuba’s massive expertise export – including also sport and education specialists – account for the largest source of revenue for the island, bringing in an estimated $10 billion a year.

The Cuban medical mission in Sierra Leone is expected to last for about six months. WHO has said it hopes the move will “send a strong message of solidarity for Africa to the rest of the world and will catalyse additional offers of support from other countries”.

(This article was translated from French, click here to see the original).


September 26, 2014 -- Cuban government's pledge comes as European health experts urge their governments to ramp up relief efforts in region.

Cuba says it will send nearly 300 more doctors and nurses to West Africa to help fight the Ebola epidemic.

The Cubans will work in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, Regla Angulo, head of the Cuban medical relief agency, said in a statement on September 26.

The announcement means that up to 461 Cuban medical personnel would have been sent to help address the epidemic spreading across West Africa.

Angulo said the staff were currently undergoing intense training ahead of their deployment, working in a mock field hospital of the kind they expected to find in the region.

Cuba's decision comes as health experts from 16 European countries urged their governments to massively scale up manpower and resources to fight the Ebola epidemic, now threatening "the entire world".

European countries should urgently send trained medical staff, field laboratories, protective clothing, disinfectants and basic tools such as electricity generators, 44 public health professionals and academics wrote in The Lancet medical journal.

"After months of inaction and neglect from the international community, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has now spiralled utterly out of control," said their open letter.

"Today, the virus is a threat not only to the countries where the outbreak has overwhelmed the capacity of national health systems, but also to the entire world.

"We urge our governments to mobilise all possible resources to assist West Africa in dealing with this horrific epidemic."

On Thursday. US President Barack Obama said the global community had not done enough to respond to the crisis. 

"There is still a significant gap between where we are and where we need to be," Obama said on Thursday while addressing a high-level UN meeting on Ebola.

Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organisation, addressed the Ebola meeting before Obama.

Chan said the virus was "still running ahead, jumping over everything we put in place to slow it down".

The American government has dispatched 3,000 US troops to Liberia to set up facilities and form training teams to help treat patients. 

The deadliest Ebola epidemic has infected more than 6,200 people in west Africa and killed nearly half of them since late last year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).


October 4, 2014 -- Washington Post -- While the international community has been accused of dragging its feet on the Ebola crisis, Cuba, a country of just 11 million people that still enjoys a fraught relationship with the United States, has emerged as a crucial provider of medical expertise in the West African nations hit by Ebola.

On Thursday, 165 health professionals from the country arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to join the fight against Ebola – the largest medical team of any single foreign nation, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And after being trained to deal with Ebola, a further 296 Cuban doctors and nurses will go to Liberia and Guinea, the other two countries worst hit by the crisis.

Cuba is, by any measure, not a wealthy country. It had a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of slightly more than $68 billion in 2011, according to the World Bank, putting it a few places higher than Belarus. At $6,051, its GDP per capita was less than one-sixth of Britain's. However, its official response to Ebola seems far more robust than many countries far wealthier than it – and serves as further proof that health-care professionals are up there with rum and cigars in terms of Cuban exports.

Cuba's universal health-care system enables such an export. The country nationalized its health care shortly after its revolution, ending private health care and guaranteeing free health care in its constitution. The results have been widely praised. In 2008, evaluating 30 years of Cuba's "primary health care revolution," the WHO noted impressive strides that the country had made in certain health indicators. "These indicators – which are close or equal to those in developed countries – speak for themselves," Gail Reed noted, pointing to a huge reduction in number of deaths for children under five years old and Cuba's high life expectancy of 77 years.

Cuba's health-care success is built upon its medical training. After the Cuban revolution, half of the country's 6,000 doctors fled and the country was forced to rebuild its work force. The training system grew so much that by 2008, it was training 20,000 foreigners a year to be doctors, nurses and dentists, largely free of charge.

Ebola isn't the first time that Cuban health workers have been sent to deal with a global disaster. Even back in 1960, immediately after the revolution, Cuba sent doctors to Chile to help in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, and the practice has continued for decades since. In 2005, Cuba even offered to send medical workers to the United States after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (they were apparently rebuffed).

Reuters reports that Cuba currently has around 50,000 health workers working in 66 countries. Despite the high-profile acts of charity, the medical diplomacy more often seemed to serve more practical purposes – an estimated 30,000 health workers are currently in Venezuela as a partial payment for oil, for example. Exported medical expertise is predicted to net Cuba $8.2 billion in 2014, according to a recent report in state newspaper Granma. There are hopes that medical tourism and exported medical technology could one day provide similar figures.

It's not a simple picture. Critics have complained that Cuba has begun to sacrifice the health of its citizens at home to make money sending medical workers abroad, and the conditions for these medical workers themselves have been criticized – The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year that a significant number of Cuban health-care workers in Venezuela have fled the country to escape "crushing" workloads.

Even so, Cuba's oversized response to Ebola seems to have brushed aside these criticisms, for now at least. The number of Cuban medical staff in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea looks set to be more than those sent from far-larger countries like China. Israel, a wealthier country with a similar population, caused controversy this week when it rejected calls to send medical teams.

“Money and materials are important, but those two things alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission,” Dr Margaret Chan, director-general at the World Health Organization, said last month“Human resources are clearly our most important need."


Cuba is an impoverished island that remains largely cut off from the world and lies about 4,500 miles from the West African nations where Ebola is spreading at an alarming rate. Yet, having pledged to deploy hundreds of medical professionals to the front lines of the pandemic, Cuba stands to play the most robust role among the nations seeking to contain the virus.

Cuba’s contribution is doubtlessly meant at least in part to bolster its beleaguered international standing. Nonetheless, it should be lauded and emulated.

The global panic over Ebola has not brought forth an adequate response from the nations with the most to offer. While the United States and several other wealthy countries have been happy to pledge funds, only Cuba and a few nongovernmental organizations are offering what is most needed: medical professionals in the field.

Doctors in West Africa desperately need support to establish isolation facilities and mechanisms to detect cases early. More than 400 medical personnel have been infected and about 4,500 patients have died. The virus has shown up in the United States and Europe, raising fears that the epidemic could soon become a global menace.

It is a shame that Washington, the chief donor in the fight against Ebola, is diplomatically estranged from Havana, the boldest contributor. In this case the schism has life-or-death consequences, because American and Cuban officials are not equipped to coordinate global efforts at a high level. This should serve as an urgent reminder to the Obama administration that the benefits of moving swiftly to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba far outweigh the drawbacks.

The Cuban health care workers will be among the most exposed foreigners, and some could very well contract the virus. The World Health Organization is directing the team of Cuban doctors, but it remains unclear how it would treat and evacuate Cubans who become sick. Transporting quarantined patients requires sophisticated teams and specially configured aircraft. Most insurance companies that provide medical evacuation services have said they will not be flying Ebola patients.

Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday praised “the courage of any health care worker who is undertaking this challenge,” and made a brief acknowledgment of Cuba’s response. As a matter of good sense and compassion, the American military, which now has about 550 troops in West Africa, should commit to giving any sick Cuban access to the treatment center the Pentagon built in Monrovia and to assisting with evacuation.

The work of these Cuban medics benefits the entire global effort and should be recognized for that. But Obama administration officials have callously declined to say what, if any, support they would give them.

The Cuban health sector is aware of the risks of taking on dangerous missions. Cuban doctors assumed the lead role in treating cholera patients in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake in 2010. Some returned home sick, and then the island had its first outbreak of cholera in a century. An outbreak of Ebola on the island could pose a far more dangerous risk and increase the odds of a rapid spread in the Western Hemisphere.

Cuba has a long tradition of dispatching doctors and nurses to disaster areas abroad. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Cuban government created a quick-reaction medical corps and offered to send doctors to New Orleans. The United States, unsurprisingly, didn’t take Havana up on that offer. Yet officials in Washington seemed thrilled to learn in recent weeks that Cuba had activated the medical teams for missions in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

With technical support from the World Health Organization, the Cuban government trained 460 doctors and nurses on the stringent precautions that must be taken to treat people with the highly contagious virus. The first group of 165 professionals arrived in Sierra Leone in recent days. José Luis Di Fabio, the World Health Organization’s representative in Havana, said Cuban medics were uniquely suited for the mission because many had already worked in Africa. “Cuba has very competent medical professionals,” said Mr. Di Fabio, who is Uruguayan. Mr. Di Fabio said Cuba’s efforts to aid in health emergencies abroad are stymied by the embargo the United States imposes on the island, which struggles to acquire modern equipment and keep medical shelves adequately stocked.

In a column published over the weekend in Cuba’s state-run newspaper, Granma, Fidel Castro argued that the United States and Cuba must put aside their differences, if only temporarily, to combat a deadly scourge. He’s absolutely right.