A rapidly spreading virus hit West Africa during 2014, fueled by poverty and precarious health systems. Responding to a call from the World Health Organization (WHO), Cuba sent medical personnel to treat patients in Liberia, Guinea Conakry and Sierra Leone.
Dr. Jorge Delgado Bustillo tells Granma International of the 12,000 Cuban professionals (a three-day record) who volunteered to fight the disease as part of the Henry Reeve Contingent, created in 2005 by Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro, and specialized in tackling natural disasters and epidemics, with work in 18 countries to date.
Delgado Bustillo, who today is deputy director of the Central Unit for Medical Cooperation, led the brigade, which served in Sierra Leone. He spoke of the intense training received at the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine, with advice from WHO and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) experts.
“We were faced with a virtually unknown epidemic, described as highly dangerous. A rigorous examination was made of the personal protective equipment, during the training. With this clothing on, an average of over a liter of liquid is perspired in the space of an hour, and it was imperative that our compañeros adapted to wearing the suit,” the epidemiologist explained.
The 400 personnel selected to join the mission met various requirements: previous experience in the profession and other internationalist missions; proficiency in English; and certified by international bodies in proper handling of safety measures.
There was also a process of chemoprophylaxis, to prevent personnel from contracting endemic diseases while in Africa, particularly malaria, caused by mosquitoes. Following the preparation, 256 collaborators left the island in October – 165 traveled to Sierra Leone, 53 to Liberia and 38 to Guinea Conakry.
Jorge Delgado Bustillo notes that 101 nurses, 59 doctors and five logistical support personnel arrived in Sierra Leone, where they were spread across four Ebola Treatment Centers in Kerry Town, Maforki, Waterloo and Freetown.
“Ten of our specialists in Comprehensive General Medicine and eleven nurses provided services in a pediatric center and saved hundreds of infants’ lives but they were pained on witnessing the death of many children. It is very sad to not be able to cure a child,” the doctor said.
“The Cuban personnel also tackled diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, meningitis and other illnesses of unknown causes,” he added. “We could not always determine the pathology of people. Test results were delayed several days due to the lack of laboratories. Due to our insistence, more than ten such institutions were opened and these provided more accurate diagnoses. In the case of Ebola, we began to get results within 12 to 24 hours, an achievement for us.”
The infection of Dr. Félix Baez was a moment of great concern for the members of the brigade, which was overcome through swift and immediate attention, including his transfer to a specialized center in Geneva, Switzerland, where he made a full recovery, after which he returned to Sierra Leone to complete his mission. Cubans also grieved the loss of nurse Reynaldo Villafranca Antigua, who died on January 18, 2015, due to malaria.
Jorge Delgado Bustillo stressed the role played by nurses, who injected veins while wearing up to three types of gloves, together with their everyday tasks of patient care and hygiene, as well as instructing their local colleagues in these practices.
Meanwhile, Cuban doctors, just as the nurses, undertook all kinds of work with Ebola infected patients, such as administering medicines, establishing procedures, undertaking clinical consultations and meeting with relatives to stem the spread of the epidemic through preventative means.
“Today we are drawing up the disease protocols for submission to the WHO and PAHO so that these experiences can be applied across the world,” he explained.
The United Nations reported recently that Liberia and Sierra Leone had been declared free of the virus and are currently undergoing a 90 day phase of intense surveillance, while Guinea Conakry is advancing toward 50 days without new cases of infection, with the aim of reaching the same stage. However, three cases of the disease were recently reported in Liberia, causing great concern for the country’s health authorities and the WHO.
Extreme vigilance means ensuring that there are no setbacks in terms of the outbreak detected in December 2013, which saw a total of 28,634 cases and 11,314 deaths. Cuba prevented further spread of the disease, thanks to the selfless attitude of her health professionals.