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Cuba punches above its weight in Ebola fight

Raúl Castro urges international community to engage in medical diplomacy and unite against Ebola

Cuba offered to collaborate with the United States to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as the island nation sends an additional 460 doctors and nurses to the region — an example of how the Cuban government uses medical personnel to flex its soft power throughout the world, experts say.

At a summit in Havana, Cuban leader Raúl Castro welcomed member nations of ALBA — an alliance of Latin American countries — and international organizations such as the United Nations to coordinate efforts to fight Ebola, Cuban newspaper Granma reported.

Castro also rallied the international community to continue providing support to Haiti, the locus of the last major public health crisis needing international aid. A cholera outbreak there has killed more than 8,500 people since 2010.

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro said in a letter published Saturday that his country would send an additional 460 doctors and nurses to West Africa, where nearly 4,500 people have died from Ebola and another 5,000 have been infected.

The team of medical personnel will join the 165 Cuban doctors and nurses who are already in Sierra Leone to help fight the epidemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) called Cuba's effort one of the “most important” medical contributions made by a single country. By comparison, the United States has sent about 600 medical staff to the region, and an additional 565 military troops to assist with containment efforts.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the initiative and mentioned Cuba on Friday in Washington as one of the “nations large and small stepping up in impressive ways to make a contribution on the front lines."

Jorge Perez, the head of Cuba's top tropical medicine institute, told The Associated Press that Cuba is ready to send still more doctors if there is enough funding and infrastructure to support them.

"There are countries that have resources and can send money, but there are also those who can send human resources. It's not just doctors. We also need nurses, technicians," he said.

Perez said that despite Washington’s tense relationship with Cuba's communist government, Kerry's words were "an important gesture."

Public health has become a key pillar of foreign policy as officials have recognized the destabilizing threat of illnesses and their potential use for “bioterror” purposes in the past decade. The U.S. Department of Defense outspends the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on matters of public health with a budget of at least $500 million.

“It is a reflection and understanding of political leadership across the world that health issues are now legitimate foreign policy concerns,” said Josh Michaud, associate director with the global health policy team at the Kaiser Family Foundation and a lecturer at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Public health has also been key to the Cuban government’s diplomacy efforts in Africa and around the world. The island nation has deployed more than 130,000 medical field personnel in more than 107 countries in the past 50 years to assist with public health emergencies and care. Cuba currently has 45,952 medical workers tackling diseases around the world, according to Granma.

The rise of medical diplomacy has taken different shapes and forms. By sending medical personnel and not military troops, Cuban leaders aim to emphasize a sense of the “moral superiority” of its diplomacy, Michaud said.

“They see it as a way to project Cuba’s image as a developed and technologically sophisticated nation,” Michaud added. “Cuba has emphasized the righteousness and humanitarianism of its medical diplomacy and contrasted this with this sending soldiers.”

Public health crises have a history of uniting two unlikely partners in the fight against grave international threats. Israelis and Palestinians collaborate on disease surveillance through the Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance, an example of how “common goals can overcome political differences when it comes to fighting disease and quelling outbreaks,” the WHO said in a statement.

In the wake of the SARS epidemic just over a decade ago, when many officials were reluctant to be transparent about the extent of the crisis, China became more interested in developing a public health infrastructure and collaborated with international organizations such as the WHO and the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention. The outbreak served as a catalyst to change China’s development agenda and relax government information control, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Isolation had made China worse off,” Michaud said.

With The Associated Press

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