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Around the world with socialism's medical missionaries

As part of the Cuba60 celebrations, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign is hosting a speaking tour by DR ENMANUEL VIGIL FONSECA, a volunteer in Cuba’s Henry Reeve emergency medical brigade

FROM June 8-24, Dr Vigil Fonseca will be talking about his experiences as part of Cuba’s world renowned “Henry Reeve International Team of Medical Specialists in Disasters & Epidemics.”

The Henry Reeve Brigade has achieved international recognition over the last 14 years for its work in more than 20 countries during emergency and disaster situations.

Notable examples include the Pakistan earthquake in 2006, where Cubans treated 73 per cent of all victims; the Haiti earthquake in 2010, when Cuban teams already working on the island were the first on the scene; and in West Africa in 2014, responding to a World Health Organisation call on Cuba to provide doctors to help bring the epidemic under control.

Named after Henry Reeve, a US citizen who became a general in Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, members of the team specialise in medical responses to emergency situations and pledge to serve wherever they are needed.

The brigade was established in September 2005, in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in the southern United States. At the time, Fidel Castro offered to send 1,586 medical professionals, including physicians and nurses, to the US. The Bush administration rejected the offer.

In 2005 Dr Vigil Fonseca was a student at the Calixto Garcia University Hospital’s medical school in Havana when he and other students heard about the creation of the Henry Reeve medical contingent to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. They were impressed by Fidel Castro’s speech at the time, and immediately asked the deacon of the school if they could join the doctors, but were told that they needed to finish their studies first.

As soon as he graduated in 2009, Enmanuel volunteered for his first international mission and was chosen to go to Venezuela as a member of the Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighbourhood) Health Mission.

Recalling his time in the neighbourhood of Villa Tatiana in the Venezuelan state of Miranda, he says: “I offered primary care services to the population in a massive programme aimed at providing medical care to Venezuela’s most vulnerable communities. At the same time I was studying to become a Comprehensive Family Medicine specialist with Cuban professors working in Comprehensive Diagnostic Centres.”

“I treated lots of children and even delivered babies. Women in full-term pregnancy should go to their genealogical clinics, but on more than one occasion they would come to me in the early hours of the morning with contractions and there was no time to wait. I also assumed epidemiological control of various camps for people who had lost their homes as a result of intense rains.”

After his four year placement in Venezuela, he joined the Henry Reeve Brigade again to volunteer in emergency situations in Peru, Ecuador, Haiti and the Western Sahara.

In 2014 he was one of 250 Cuban doctors who volunteered in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak. He had seen reports of the epidemic on the news, and also the meeting between the Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Margaret Chan, and Cuban Health Minister, Roberto Morales Ojeda, where Cuba’s decision to help those infected with Ebola was announced.

At the time Vigil was back working at a polyclinic in Central Havana. The managers of the clinic met with the doctors and asked for volunteers to go to Africa. “I signed up right then and there,” he says.

They were given intensive training, receiving classes from WHO specialists, who explained the protocols in treating and protecting themselves from the illness. European doctors gave conferences with audiovisuals and provided up-to-date bibliographies and the results of the latest field studies.

“During the course we underwent rigorous medical checks, received all necessary vaccinations and prophylactic measures. Those with chronic conditions or any other type of illness weren’t selected. At the end of the training, they gave us exams to test our knowledge and only those who passed were included on the list,” he explains.

On finding out he had been selected he felt two things: “First the excitement of being chosen on the basis of my physical condition and ability to fulfil the risky mission at 31 years of age. This made me feel proud; it would be my contribution to humanity. The second emotion was sadness.

“Chatting with the group while waiting for the plane, someone said very seriously, ‘We are going to fight a war and we might not return.’ At that moment I thought of the faces of my family; of the kiss, the apology, the hug I never gave. Only my conviction to keep going got me to Sierra Leone.”

On arrival he was surprised to find that people there knew about Cuba. “They’d point to a Cuban and say two names: Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara.”

Describing his time in Africa he says: “The children infected with Ebola affected me greatly. I saw newborn babies and other infants with sad faces.

“We rigorously complied with safety measures. We needed to protect ourselves in order to care for others. This was the number one safety measure we had to fulfil.

“I fell ill with appendicitis and underwent surgery. I never talked about going home. That’s why I returned to my medical activities, once I recovered.

“Fatalities were increasing and we began to study all the medical processes. We held group discussions to decide on new courses of action to treat the pathology. After saving many people, more patients wanted to be treated by Cuban doctors.

“We didn’t have enough hospital beds, but we never turned away a single sick person. We had to improvise with full wards, but we treated everyone that came to us for help.”

Dr Vigil Fonseca will speak at public meetings in London, Norwich, Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Brighton and at the Unison and Unite conferences in June.

The tour comes at an opportune time. The United States is claiming that Cuba has thousands of soldiers in Venezuela, when the truth is that there are 20,000 doctors and nurses working there, more than 60 per cent of whom are women.

The island currently has 38,000 medical professionals working in 66 countries, hundreds of thousands of doctors have volunteered in 160 countries in the last 55 years, and more than 35,000 medics from 138 countries have been trained in Cuba since 1999.

This inspiring humanitarian record is under attack from hard-line US politicians who also dream of re-establishing the Medical Professional Parole Programme which targets Cuban doctors working in medical missions abroad.

Between 2006 and 2017, this US government policy actively promoted brain drain from Cuba by offering fast track US visas and settlement packages for doctors who deserted their overseas postings.

The scheme was halted by President Obama just before he left office in January 2017, but there is talk of reviving it.

To their discredit several international news agencies have been quick to report negative propaganda about the work of Cuba’s international medical brigades. Rather than focus on the millions of lives saved and the thousands of doctors like Dr Vigil Fonseca who have completed missions in poor communities around the world, they choose to focus on a handful who have left under the US programme.

Dr Enmanuel Vigil Fonseca’s visit will give people the chance to hear first hand from a Cuban doctor with years of experiences on internationalist health missions.

The tour starts at the Cuba Solidarity Campaign’s Annual General Meeting on Saturday June 8 at 10.30am, Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London.

He will then speak in meetings in Norwich, Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Liverpool and Brighton, and attend the RMT Garden Party for Cuba on June 12.

For full details, dates and times see www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk, call (020) 7490-5715, or email office@cuba-solidarity.org.uk.

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