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EDITORIAL - Seeking Cuba's help sensible

Published:Friday | October 24, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Jamaica's decision to ask Cuba for help in developing an Ebola-preparedness strategy is a good one, and perhaps the most thoughtful public-health initiative by Fenton Ferguson since he took over the health portfolio two and a half years ago.

For, the mess that was initially made in the response to the chikungunya virus and last week's display of unprofessionalism and ignorance displayed by medical staff at the Mandeville Regional Hospital in Manchester when they feared they might have a case of Ebola, demonstrates that Jamaica needs all the help it gets. And in this circumstance, there can be few places better, if any, from which to get it than Havana. There are several reasons for this conclusion, but two, from a technical area, are critical.

First, Cuba, in part, because of the way the communist government manages its affairs, and the way the society is structured, has a world-class civil-defence system that responds with great efficiency during public hazards and natural disasters, such as hurricanes that regularly threaten this region. It is often a revelation when major storms pummel the Caribbean, leaving destruction and death across the region, the casualties tend to be few in Cuba, largely because of the preparedness and coordination of their emergency mechanisms. It, for instance, appears capable of moving large numbers of people from threatened population centres without the chaos that tends to accompany such efforts elsewhere in the region.

That kind of synchronised logistical operation, which the Cubans have clearly mastered, will be necessary if Jamaica has to respond to even a single case of Ebola, much more a full-blown outbreak of the disease. Indeed, the experience at Mandeville Hospital of Bob Banjo, the Nigerian national and long-time resident of Jamaica, when he sought treatment for an apparent case of food poisoning exacerbated by hypertension demonstrates just how ill-prepared - despite the efforts so far by the health authorities - Jamaica is for an Ebola crisis. Doctors and nurses, who appeared to know little about the incubation period of Ebola themselves, panicked, and so did patients. In the process, it took several hours for Dr Banjo to receive even the most basic treatment for his aliment.

Quality health-care system

Another important facet of Cuba's suitability to offer Jamaica, is the quality, despite its relative poverty, of its health system, recognised among the best in the world. There is none better regarding public-health management, especially at the primary level. Underpinning all this is Cuba's sense of internationalism. For decades, it has sent its doctors, nurses and other health-care specialists around the world, including Jamaica, to work. More than 50,000 of them now operate in 60 countries.

In fact, its response to the outbreak of the Ebola in West Africa underlines the point. Already Cuba has sent more than 250 doctors and nurses to the front line to Guinea and Liberia and near equal numbers are to join them in these countries as well as the other Ebola front-line state, Sierra Leone.

Cuba's Ebola preparation and its broader experience in public health and disaster management should help Jamaica climb more quickly up the learning curve. But much will depend on our health professionals remembering the Hippocratic oath and not dashing at the first sign of crisis, as seems to have been the case in Mandeville.

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