Cuban doctors train, fight Ebola in Africa


461 Cuban health workers heading to West Africa, Patrick Oppmann reports for CNN.

In the sweltering Caribbean heat, the Cuban doctor swathes himself in a plastic protective suit.

Seven different pieces of clothing, including two sets of gloves, go on.

When he pulls goggles over his head, they immediately cloud up from the sweat pooling across his brow.

“Its not that bad,” said the doctor, who has scrawled his name, Juan, and a smiley face in red magic marker across the front of his jacket. “You get used to it.”

He will have to.

For at least the next six months, 461 Cuban doctors and nurses are tasked with stopping the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in its tracks.

Despite the limitations and shortages that the island nation’s socialist health care system faces, Cuba was one of the first governments to send health care workers to combat Ebola.

“Our principle has been to share what we have and not to give what we don’t,” said Dr. Jorge Perez Avila, the director of the Pedro Kouri Institute for Tropical Medicine in Havana. “The little we have, we share. Our principle resource is human capital.”

Down the hall from Perez’s office is Cuba’s Ebola “boot camp,” an intense training program where for a minimum of two weeks, doctors and nurses are drilled on how to treat patients while not exposing themselves to the deadly virus.

CNN is the only international news outlet that has been allowed to observe the preparations of the Cuban health workers before they depart for Africa.

Already, 165 doctors and nurses from the island have been sent to Sierra Leone. More health workers will be dispatched to Liberia and Guinea.

“They have the courage and valor to volunteer and have signed consent forms,” Perez said. “We have instructed them how not to get sick, but they are at great risk. It is our hope that none of them get sick.”

“We have the conviction that perhaps a few will fall ill but the majority will not,” he said.

According to Cuban state media, more than 15,000 health workers on the island have volunteered for the risky mission. Officials said they decided to send only male doctors and nurses after seeing reports of attacks on local health care workers in hard-hit and increasingly desperate communities.

“More than one person has been attacked and even murdered,” Perez said.

The Cuban doctors and nurses will work under the supervision of the World Health Organization. If they contract Ebola, the Cubans have been told they will not be brought back to Cuba for treatment, said Dr. Jose Luis Di Fabio, who represents the WHO and Pan American Health Organization in Cuba.

Di Fabio told CNN that while medical equipment and money are pouring in from around the world, what the region needs most are qualified medical personnel.

“You have to identify patients, diagnose patients and treat patients. If you don’t have the human resources to do that, you don’t have anything,” Di Fabio said. “Human resources in Africa is the major thing that’s lacking.”

In a mock field hospital, the Cuban health workers run through mass triage of Ebola patients. They are working in a M.A.S.H. unit, open-air tents. and with the afternoon sun burning high in the sky, their makeshift ER feels like an oven.

An Italian doctor training the Cubans barks orders seemingly without pausing to take a breath or drink from the bottle of water sloshing in her gesticulating hand.

“Here’s how you take their blood, here’s how you give them water,” she commands. “If the patient is unresponsive you need to move onto the next one.”

Dr. Osmany Rodriguez listens intently. A veteran of Cuban medical missions to Venezuela and Zimbabwe, Rodriguez said nothing he has faced in those countries compares to the task of fighting Ebola.

“This is the biggest challenge I have confronted in my life,” he said.

In the coming days, Rodriguez will join colleagues in West Africa and, after more training there, go to the front line of the fight against Ebola.

“My family, they are a bit worried, but they know I will be taking care of everything. They will trust in my daily habits and routines in order to avoid the disease,” Rodriguez said.

“To break the transmission is important,” he said. “Not for the Cuban people, not for the African people. For the whole world.”

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