As calls for help in tackling the Ebola outbreak in West Africa became louder and the death toll surged past 2,400 people, two major pledges were offered up from the international community in recent days — coming in the form of $50 million donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and 165 healthcare workers from Cuba.
In a joint-announcement Friday, the World Health Organization's Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan and Cuba's Minister of Public Health Dr. Roberto Morales Ojeda said the country will send 63 doctors and more than 100 nurses, along with epidemiologists, specialists in infection control, intensive care specialists, and social mobilization officers, to Sierra Leone for six months.
"If we are going to go to war with Ebola, we need the resources to fight," Margaret Chan said in a statement. Expanding on the idea in a press conference on Friday, she said: "The thing we need most of all is people: health care workers."
Cuba does not currently have any staff on the ground in West Africa working with Ebola care, but Morales Ojeda said they had collaborators in Guinea and Sierra Leone, thus the reasoning for sending its workers there. The workers are set to deploy at the beginning of October.
"The Cuban Government, as it has always done in this 55 years of revolution, has decided to participate in this global effort under the coordination of WHO to face this dramatic situation in West Africa," Morales Ojeda said Friday.
Chan noted that "Cuba is world-famous for its ability to train outstanding doctors and nurses and for its generosity in helping fellow countries on the route to progress."
Known for its highly qualified doctors and comprehensive healthcare system with one physician per as many as 160 families, Cuba has also played an important role in providing healthcare workers during times of crisis throughout the world over the past five decades.
According to Ojeda, more than 50,000 Cuban healthcare workers are stationed in 66 countries, half of whom are doctors.
The country has run a long-standing program that sends doctors to other countries on the state payroll, most notably in Venezuela, where an estimated 10,000 medical care providers are stationed.
Specifically with disaster relief, the country's first foray occurred in 1960, just after the revolution, when it sent workers to assist in relief efforts after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Chile. Perhaps most notably, Cuba deployed more than 300,000 people to Angola between 1975 and 1991, including both troops and healthcare workers.
Morales Ojeda said the Cubans would work alongside doctors from other countries, including the US. He also urged for increased support from other nations, saying "On behalf of the Cuban Government, we reiterate the call to other governments and ministers of health of all countries to join this global effort at a time when Africa is in urgent need of international solidarity."
This echoes sentiments expressed by MSF in recent weeks, specifically with the request for more staff. In an interview last week regarding the need for increased global assistance, Brice De La Vigne, MSF's operation director, told VICE News that professional and trained personnel are crucial.
"MSF is asking for help, hands on support and people, not financial or technical support, but people able to deliver action on the ground," De La Vigne said, also calling on action from other countries, specifically in connection to Liberia, where the situation has grown increasingly dire.
Of the more than 2,400 Ebola related deaths in West Africa to date, almost half have occurred in Liberia, with 14 of 15 counties experiencing cases of the hemorrhagic fever. Chan noted that even with new centers opening, response efforts could not keep up. She said there was not a single open bed in the country, and when a new center opened with the capacity to manage 30 patients, more than 70 showed up on the first day alone.
University of Reading virologist Ben Neuman told VICE News that while the situation in all of the countries was concerning, Liberia is clearly going to be the most challenging to take under control. He said it will be crucial to build more hospitals and increase medical support, but even still, the outbreak there should last well into 2015.
"Liberia is going to be the last frontier where the last battles are going to be fought," he said.
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