Brazil to Send Cuban Doctors to Underserved Regions

News from Cuba | Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Brazil turns to Cuba after failing to draw enough applicants writes Paul Kiernan in the Wall Street Journal

Brazil's government has closed a deal to import Cuban doctors to work in underserved regions of the country, after efforts to attract Brazilians and foreigners from other countries failed to draw enough applicants.

The Brazilian Health Ministry signed an agreement Wednesday with the U.S.-based Pan-American Health Organization, or PAHO, to bring 4,000 doctors from Cuba by the end of the year. They'll participate in a programme known as Mais Medicos, or "more doctors" --that the government launched in July amid massive street demonstrations calling for better public services such as health care.

Under the program, Brazil's federal government pays doctors a monthly salary of 10,000 Brazilian reais ($4,098) to work three years in urban slums and other needy areas such as rural towns, the Amazon River basin and impoverished northeastern states, where medics have long been scarce. In the case of doctors from Communist-run Cuba, the money will be channeled through PAHO from the Brazilian government to the Cuban government, a Health Ministry official said.

The plan, which was initially announced in May, sparked a backlash from some Brazilian medical groups, which called into question the qualifications their Cuban counterparts. It also drew comparisons with Venezuela, where the late President Hugo Chavez famously sent the Cuban regime cheap oil in exchange for thousands of health care professionals.

In presenting the Mais Medicos program last month, officials downplayed negotiations with PAHO and Cuba, saying they were mainly targeting doctors from Spain and Portugal and would only admit professionals who spoke Portuguese and had medical training that met Brazilian standards. In all cases, Brazilian doctors will have priority over foreigners.

But after the first registration period, which ended August 13, only 1,096 Brazilians and 522 foreigners "mostly from Argentina and Spain"had signed up for Mais Medicos.

The 3,500 municipalities participating in the program had requested more than 15,000 doctors.

"Through this agreement with PAHO, we're going to expand the number of doctors in precisely those municipalities where there's greatest difficulty in bringing professionals, " Health Minister Alexandre Padilha said Wednesday in a press release. The first group of Cuban doctors will arrive in Brazil for a three-week preparation course this weekend, and the government expects to spend 511 million Brazilian reais ($209 million) bringing the rest here by February.

Joaque?n Molina, PAHO's representative in Brazil, said the Cubans are "experienced doctors who have already worked in Portuguese-speaking countries and are specialized in family medicine."

Though infrastructure and medical supplies are lacking in much of the country, Brazilian health officials say a shortage of doctors is their most urgent challenge. Brazil has 1.8 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants, fewer than most developed nations as well as regional neighbors Argentina and Mexico.

International agreements prohibit Brazil from seeking doctors in countries that have fewer per capita than it does, which rules out former Portuguese colonies in Africa. Cuba, meanwhile, has 6.7 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the World Health Organization.

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