Cuban medical aid to Haiti.

Author:Kirk, Emily J.
Position:One of the World's Best Kept Secrets
 
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Media coverage of Cuban medical cooperation following the disastrous recent earthquake in Haiti was sparse indeed. International news reports usually described the Dominican Republic as being the first to provide assistance, while Fox News sang the praises of US relief efforts in a report entitled "US Spearheads Global Response to Haiti Earthquake"--a common theme of its extensive coverage. CNN also broadcast hundreds of reports, and in fact one focused on a Cuban doctor wearing a T-shirt with a large image of Che Guevara--and yet described him as a "Spanish doctor."

In general, international news reports ignored Cuba's efforts. By March 24, CNN, for example, had 601 reports on their news website regarding the earthquake in Haiti--of which only 18 (briefly) referenced Cuban assistance. Similarly, between them the New York Times and the Washington Post had 750 posts regarding the earthquake and relief efforts, though not a single one discusses in any detail any Cuban support. In reality, however, Cuba's medical role had been extremely important--and had been present since 1998.

Cuba and Haiti pre-earthquake

In 1998, Haiti was struck by Hurricane Georges. The hurricane caused 230 deaths, destroyed 80% of the crops, and left 167,000 people homeless. (1) Despite the fact that Cuba and Haiti had not had diplomatic relations in over 36 years, Cuba immediately offered a multifaceted agreement to assist them, of which the most important was medical cooperation.

Cuba adopted a two-pronged public health approach to help Haiti. First, it agreed to maintain hundreds of doctors in the country for as long as necessary, working wherever they were posted by the Haitian government. This was particularly significant as Haiti's health care system was easily the worst in the Americas, with life expectancy of only 54 years in 1990 and 1 out of every 5 adult deaths due to AIDS, while 12.1% of children died from preventable intestinal infectious diseases. (2)

In addition Cuba agreed to train Haitian doctors in Cuba, providing that they would later return and take the places of the Cuban doctors (a process of "brain gain" rather than "brain drain"). Significantly, the students were selected from non-traditional backgrounds, and were mainly poor. It was thought that, because of their socio-economic background, they fully understood their country's need for medical personnel, and would return to work where they were needed. The first cohort of students began studying in May, 1999 at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM).

By 2007, significant change had already been achieved throughout the country. It is worth noting that Cuban medical personnel were estimated to be caring for 75% of the population. (3) Studies by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) indicated clear improvements in the health profile since this extensive Cuban medical cooperation began.

Improvements in Public Health in Haiti, 1999-2007 (4) Health Indicator 1999 2000 Infant Mortality, per 1,000 live births 80 3 Child Mortality Under 5 per 1,000 135 59 Maternal Mortality per 100,000 live births 523 28 Life Expectancy (years) 54 61 By 2010, at no cost to medical students, Cuba had trained some 550 Haitian doctors, and is at present training a further 567. Moreover, since 1998 some 6,094 Cuban medical personnel have worked in Haiti. They had given over 14.6 million consultations, carried out...

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