HAVANA – Created in 2005 by the late Fidel Castro, Cuba’s Henry Reeve medical brigade has provided aid to 19 countries, work that has earned it the World Health Organization’s award, which the unit’s professional healthcare personnel view as a “stimulus” to continue saving lives around the world.
Dr. Jorge Delgado, the assistant director of the Cuban Medical Cooperation department, has served in countries like Guatemala, South Africa and Zimbabwe and headed the mission to Sierra Leone to fight the deadly Ebola epidemic in 2014-2015, the “most difficult challenge” of his life, he told EFE on Monday.
“Personally, it’s a great satisfaction to have carried out those missions. I think that after the Ebola one there’s nothing that we can’t face,” said Delgado, proud and happy that the brigade this year was the winner of the WHO’s Dr. Lee Jong-wook Public Health Award.
For this experienced physician, the award, which will be presented in May at the 70th WHO General Assembly in Geneva, is a “recognition that is received with great ... appreciation” and which motivates the Henry Reeve contingent to “continue for a long time its battle in countries affected by different situations.”
The contingent comprised of some 260 health professionals – who in 2014 traveled to Sierra Leone, Guinea Conakry and Liberia, the West African countries most seriously affected by the Ebola outbreak – vaulted into the world press as they battled the epidemic and managed to save some 7,000 lives.
Since its creation in 2005, when it was dispatched to the assistance of people affected by Guatemalan flooding and the Pakistani earthquake, the brigade has provided assistance to more than 3.5 million people and reportedly saved the lives of some 80,000 on 22 missions to 19 countries.
Another member of the Ebola group is Dr. Zuńiga Martinez, one of 40 healthcare workers sent to Guinea Conakry, who said it was a “most difficult challenge.”
“We didn’t know what we were going to confront. Every day your life was in danger. You couldn’t sleep thinking that if you got a fever or had some other symptom, in less than a week you could be dead,” Martinez said, having also provided medical aid in the Western Sahara in 2015 and in Haiti to Hurricane Matthew victims last October.
After serving for four years in Venezuela, Dr. Miriam Diez, a clinical laboratory specialist, joined the Henry Reeve brigade to provide assistance in Nepal after the April 2015 quake that killed 9,000 people and injured 22,000.
“It was a really ... difficult mission. We thought we’d be able to communicate with the people in English. In that tiny country they speak more than 100 languages, but none of them is English. It was tough, but in the end with the help of university students serving as translators and the ability of human beings to communicate in extreme situations we were able to do our work,” she said.
Diez says that serving in the brigade taught her to appreciate what she has. “As we say in Cuba, what doesn’t cost anything isn’t worth anything. When you see people who need (medical tests) and just because of money they don’t get them, it’s very sad.”