Campaign News | Thursday, 7 June 2007

From Morning Star Newspaper

Morning Star Newspaper

Wednesday 06 June 2007



INTERVIEW: Dr JUAN CARLOS DUPUY NUNEZ talks about his experiences as head of Cuba's international emergency medical team.

DR Juan Carlos Dupuy Nunez is a happy man. It's not because it's his first time in London and he's had great fun hitting the capital's tourist spots.

No, as we talk in the foyer of his hotel, the first thing that he wants to express is his gratitude and surprise at the support which progressives the length and breadth of the country have given to his homeland Cuba.

Dr Dupuy, at 40 years old, is a well-travelled individual, but the many countries which he has visited over the years are as far away from the well-trodden tourist traps as you could imagine.

Now the man in charge of Cuba's 1,500-strong international emergency medical brigade, his chosen career has taken him to some of the most impoverished countries in the world, including war-ravaged Eritrea and, most recently a seven-month stint in Pakistan following the devastating earthquake there in late 2005.

However, this is nothing unusual, since medical ability is one of Cuba's most significant exports.

Dr Dupuy shows me the 2006 figures, which make startling reading. There were 32,187 doctors working abroad in 72 countries. In all, Cuban medical staff have been sent to over 100 countries since 1963, when his country itself was still trying to recover from decades of US-backed gangster rule.

But why does a tiny country like Cuba, population 11 million, send doctors abroad and, in Pakistan's case, to help a country that is a key US ally in the "war on terror?"

"It is not for glory, it is not for material wealth, but for solidarity," comments Dr Dupuy.

He points out that, while his country may not be rich in material wealth - GDP stands at $3,900 per capita - it has a sterling asset in its people and the socialist structure of its society.

The statistics speak volumes as to the effectiveness of the Cuban health care system. Life expectancy on the island now stands at 77, only a year shy of Britain, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Even more tellingly, Dr Dupuy points out that, while the infant mortality rate in Washington is seven per 1,000 births, it is 5.3 per 1,000 in Cuba, "and decreasing all the time."

The reason is clear - there are around 400,000 health workers working across Cuba, 77,000 of them doctors. That means one doctor for every 1,161 people. The government also offers free medical training to overseas applicants, including some from the US, at its 22 educational facilities.

"Our Cuban health system is free, universal and comprehensive, but is also based on internationalist principles," says Dr Dupuy.

He recalls that, when he first applied to medical college, he was handed a form asking the question: "Do you feel able to give your services for free to any people in the world?" He answer was swift. "Yes."

The doctor explains: "When you grow up in this kind of society, you feel like that. It's the real truth. That's why, with only 11 million people, we are able to send so many people abroad."

The same ethic of solidarity was behind the establishment of the emergency international medical brigade which the he now heads. Many of its members have served abroad in the regular medical detachments, but its role is specifically to provide a rapid response to disasters worldwide.

Named the Henry Reeves brigade in honour of a New York citizen who fought to free Cuba from colonial rule in the 19th century, Dr Dupuy explains that it came into being following the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina along the US coast in August 2005.

He was at home in the central city of Santa Clara when news of the disaster broke.

"I received a call. The Ministry of Health asked: 'Are you aware of the situation? Would you like to go and help the American people?'

"One thousand five hundred doctors volunteered to go without pay," recalls Dr Dupuy.

Cuban President Fidel Castro sent condolences and offered medical assistance. It was refused.

"It was very frustrating," says the doctor. "We knew that people were suffering, dying or would die and we were there with medicine and skills, yet unable to do anything. All because of the stupid policy of the government.

"The American people wanted us to go. They needed our help," says Dr Dupuy.

The rest, as they say, is history. As the people of New Orleans were left to fend for themselves and the 1,500 Cuban medical professionals were left frustrated.

But they were soon to be called into action. When violent storms hit the impoverished Latin American state of Guatemala in September, the newly established brigade was handed its first assignment.

Seven hundred doctors were sent to help the country, where 12 out of 22 states were hit by flooding and mudslides and associated disease.

Then, in October, news arrived that Pakistan had been hit by a tremendous earthquake that had affected 3,000 square kilometres.

With winter fast approaching, Cuba joined the massive international effort to prevent thousands of deaths. It was the biggest challenge that the doctors in the Henry Reeves brigade had ever faced.

"Six days after the quake hit, we had 86 doctors there," says Dr Dupuy proudly.

Within weeks, that figure had mushroomed to 2,500. The Cubans set up 32 field hospitals packed with high-tech equipment, as well as working alongside medical staff from other countries, establishing a 600-bed health network.

The aid effort was successful. Dr Dupuy explains that disasters have a distinct pattern. There is an initial wave of casualties when disaster first strikes. Then, there is a second wave as epidemics hit.

Showing me the figures, it is clear that, together with the cool weather, the relief effort ensured that the second wave was avoided almost completely.

Cuba was only one of many countries that responded to the disaster, but the doctor points out one key difference in its contribution.

"After two months, a lot of the organisations left. We kept working there."

In fact, they stayed for seven months in all, treating a staggering number of 1.74 million patients - 73 per cent of the total - for everything from missing limbs and major surgery to childbirth and minor ailments.

"Thanks to Allah for sending you," said one Pakistani man, adding: "But please say thanks to Fidel Castro."

And the Cuban legacy lives on. "We donated everything on condition that they kept them open," says Dr Dupuy, adding that that included all their high-tech equipment such as ultrasound and x-ray machines.

As for the Cubans involved in the relief effort, the doctor concedes that there were times when they asked themselves why they had come.

"Everyone had the same answer. 'We are doctors'," he says.

"All the Cuban doctors and paramedics that participated in this task are now better doctors and better human beings."

He adds: "Every time we go abroad, we see the poor health systems that they have. They are trying to do their best, but it is very difficult.

"Every time I go and come back, I love my country more."

Dr Dupuy is touring the country with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. Dates include: Saturday June 9 (1.30pm, Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC1); Monday June 11 (7.30pm, Quaker meeting house, St James St, Sheffield); Wednesday June 13 (3pm, Committee Room 11, House of Commons); Tuesday June 19 (RMT Garden Party, Clapham, London) and the CWU, GMB, Amicus and UNISON trade union conferences.

The DVD Made in Cuba features the work of the doctors in Pakistan. It is available for £5 including p&p from CSC. Phone (020) 7263-6452 or email office@cuba-solidarity.org.uk for more details.


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