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Beyond Covid-19, cholera and ebola, Cuban doctors saved tens of thousands of children from Chernobyl

Cuban doctors are famed for their heroic role fighting outbreaks internationally such as Ebola and cholera — and celebrated today for their efforts against Covid-19. However few know the story of their 21-year project saving the child victims of Chernobyl, writes LINDA PENTZ GUNTER

CUBA’S Henry Reeve Medical Brigade of doctors, nurses and public health specialists, currently engaged in the global fight against Covid-19, has now delivered support to 27 countries.

 

Indeed, over the past 15 years, Cuban doctors have treated an estimated 3.5 million patients abroad, while offering free medical training to overseas students in Cuba.

 

Their current efforts and long history of humanitarian aid — most notably in the successful fight against Ebola in West Africa, in what was originally tagged a “suicidal mission” — has prompted a campaign calling for the Brigade to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

All of this comes against the brutal backdrop of an almost six decades-long US blockade that is depriving Cuba of access to essential medical supplies. 

 

The impact is so severe that the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, which has already spoken out against America’s “bully-boy tactics”, has now mounted a fundraising appeal to provide ventilators, testing kits and personal protective equipment for health workers in Cuba, currently grappling with Covid-19 cases of its own.

 

Worsening the situation in Cuba, the US and several Republican senators, are endeavouring to characterise the Cuban medical missions abroad as “forced labour,” effectively “human trafficking”, threatening to penalise countries that use their services. 

 

In April, five UN special rapporteurs and two independent UN experts put out a statement calling for the US to lift its economic and financial embargo on Cuba, pointing out the high level of suffering sanctions have already caused and calling for “a spirit of multilateralism, cooperation and solidarity.”

 

A group of German academics and cultural professionals working in Cuba has also mounted an online petition to end the US embargo against Cuba, calling it “unbearable” and “contrary to international law”.

 

Praise has been heaped on the Cuban doctors for their current work on Covid-19 and previous successes confronting Ebola, as well as cholera in Haiti. Yet an earlier such story of Cuban medical heroism remains largely unknown: how Cuban doctors and nurses helped save children from Chernobyl.

Beginning in 1990, and for 21 years, Cuba brought in children suffering from both the medical and attendant psychological effects of the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine. 

 

While the early patients mainly suffered from leukaemia or thyroid cancer, most of those who followed were sick with thyroid hyperplasia, vitiligo or alopecia. More than 25,000 children were treated for free in a hospital just outside Havana at Tarara, where they were also provided with an education and recreational activities. 

 

Arriving with their families, some of the children were so sick that they stayed as long as a year. No-one was charged a penny. It was, said the programme’s director Dr Julio Medina, “a commitment of solidarity.”

 

Their story was most movingly told in a 2018 feature film, Un Traductor (A Translator) a true account of the emotional impact on one Cuban professor of Russian, called to the hospital at the start of the rescue programme to translate for “the patients from Chernobyl.” (The film is available for rent or purchase on iTunes).

 

Through his eyes we meet the children and their parents, and understand the real toll the nuclear disaster took on tens of thousands of children, some of whom did not survive.

 

The Cuba Solidarity Campaign reports that the Chernobyl medical programme resumed in Cuba last year. Sadly, it is still needed — to treat the sons and daughters of those earlier patients, showing similar symptoms. 

 

Hopefully, Covid-19 will eventually dissipate. The effects of Chernobyl may never disappear.

 

 

Linda Pentz Gunter is the curator and editor of Beyond Nuclear International and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear — www.twitter.com/#!/BeyondNuclear

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