Cuban doctors fighting ebola: Heroes, not martyrs

HAVANA — Several media with worldwide reach have reported on Cuba’s decision to send 165 health professionals to West Africa to fight the ebola epidemic.

Notable among the many media voices that have recognized that gesture was that of columnist Adam Taylor of The Washington Post, to whom the small island with only 11 million people has become “a crucial provider” of the medical participation in that region of the world, struck by a disease that has taken more than 4,000 lives and has begun to knock at the doors of Europe and the United States.

It was Taylor’s analysis that Cuba, although not a rich country, could manage this “exportation” of health care precisely because it has a universal, public and free health-care system, guaranteed by its Constitution.

More than 50,000 Cuban doctors are in 66 countries, supporting their health systems, especially in primary medical attention, often in communities that are hard to reach and have very little medical coverage.

This tradition of solidarity has existed for decades and only very recently has been translated into revenue for the country. For a few years now, an increasingly larger number of those missions have been organized through intergovernment contracts that financially benefit both the Cuban state and the health workers who participate in them.

With or without financial inducement, it is not the first time that Cuban medical workers expose themselves, in truly dangerous missions, to contact not only with highly lethal viruses and bacterias but also to living conditions that are uncomfortable and risky, such as stark poverty, filth, crime, and the post-traumatic stress sydrome that affects individuals after earthquakes, hurricanes and epidemics.

If in those cases there had been no need — much need — for a friendly hand, the intelligence and the heart of a doctor who saves and cures, Cubans of several generations would not have participated for decades in helping so many human lives.

Paraphrasing a well-known saying, the need was the mother of those children.

But what remains of the terrorist media machine against Cuba, already discredited, continues to insist on reducing to mere commerce the participation of this small group of 165 doctors who arrived last week in Sierra Leone.

Worse still, they’re trying to picture those doctors as a threat to the Cuban population (including, by rebound, the population of Miami), trying to convince their public that those doctors would inevitably introduce ebola into the island after being in contact with it.

They morbidly delight in the possibility of their death — touch wood and cross fingers — and try to unleash panic with the “long knives” of suspicion and uncertainty.

They even suggest that most people in Cuba will reject the missionaries or fear them, since allegedly Cubans don’t trust the methods and resources of protection that are used, or the care that the Cuban authorities and the World Health Organization provide to those medics.

However, not only the media on the island but also many others, such as CNN, have reported on the intense process of preparation that the doctors undergo in Cuba before leaving.


Patrick Oppmann, CNN reporter: Cuban health workers suit up to fight ebola. Right now, it’s just practice, but soon they will be facing the real thing. This medical institute in Havana is the island’s ebola boot camp, providing a grueling two-week training course before workers head to the front lines of the epidemic in Africa. 

This is where the Cuban doctors and nurses practice treating patients infected with ebola. They have to repeat those procedures again and again, because a slight mistake on the field could have fatal consequences. 

Already, 165 health workers from the island have been sent to West Africa, with close to another 300 soon to join them. All are volunteers, officials say. For at least six months, they plan to treat people infected with ebola. Before they go, they learn to put on and take off several different pieces of protective equipment, leaving no gaps where ebola could enter. Despite the training, officials say, they will be in constant danger. 

Dr. Jorge Pérez Ávila, director, Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine: We’ve instructed them so that they will not get sick, but they are at great risk. It is our hope that none of them do get sick. We have the conviction that perhaps a few of them will fall ill, but the majority will not. 

Oppmann: The peril they face, Osmany Rodríguez says, will force them to stay focused. 

Dr. Osmany Rodríguez, a volunteer: To be afraid is not a big problem. I think that being afraid will help us to protect [ourselves] even more againt that viral disease, because if we feel that we’re so sure about everything that we do every day, it may be more dangerous than being afraid of the ebola disease. 

Oppmann: Cuba is, by its own government’s admission, a poor and small country but it has  taken the lead in fighting ebola. 

Dr. José Luis di Fabio, Pan American Health Organization: And we hope that Cuba’s example will take the scare that’s behind going to work in West Africa. Probably, people will be a little less scared and accept this health challenge to go and provide assistance to the African population. 

Oppmann: Cuban officials say they’re doing what they can, but to stop the epidemic from spreading further, the fight against ebola needs to become a wider effort.


We all fear for the doctors’ lives, of course. To deny that would be foolish or cynical. But we’re not looking at martyrs — we’re looking at heroes.

They have voluntarily entered a situation of risk, but they can come out of it unhurt while giving life to others. To slow down the pace of the infection will depend on ending the lack of care that most patients are suffering today. And to end the media’s lack of interest, of course.

Many people react with admiration to the honorable gesture of these Cubans. The mission will expand because the contingent will grow to more than 400 professionals in the next several weeks. They will remain in place for at least six months. Hopefully, the mission will serve as an example to mobilize those who haven’t mobilized and raise the awareness of those who are not aware.

Last Sunday, the newspaper The Guardian described it thus: “The small medical team on the front line against ebola has been a small island: Cuba.” Meanwhile, the paper said, the great powers remain intent only in stopping the spread of ebola at their own borders and shipping supplies — and troops — to West Africa.

“We need a mobilization 20 times larger,” said Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. A mobilization of aid, consisting on field laboratories, vehicles, helicopters, protection equipment, capabilities for medical evacuation, and well-trained medical personnel.

Those who know ebola say that it must be stopped and reversed in Africa, along with the brutal poverty of the people, before the crisis becomes too late for an unthinkable number of people worldwide.