More than one million Pakistanis treated by Cuban doctors

Campaign News | Sunday, 26 February 2006

10,920 operations performed, 39.9% of them major

By Juvenal Balán Neyra, Granma daily special correspondent

THE white-coated army comprising the Henry Reeve International Contingent, whose vanguard arrived in Pakistan on October 14 last year to give humanitarian aid to the victims of the devastating earthquake six days previously, have attended to 1,043,125 patients, of which 439,894 were treated in field hospitals in the northern mountains of this country.

That figure was announced at the command post of the contingent located in Abbottabad on February 23. It was also stated that 503,881 of the patients are women, representing 48.3%.

In the field hospital operating rooms at various points of the Pakistani provinces of NWFP and Kashmir most affected by the quake, orthopedics and surgeons have performed 10,920 important operations, many of them highly complex.

In addition, the rooms in the Cuban field hospitals located at 32 positions in the region of the disaster, have admitted close to 6,000 patients for a number of days to guarantee them adequate medical attention.

In Data hospital in the Mansehra district, it is already commonplace to the see two adolescents aged 14 and 13 daily crossing the field hospital from the in-patients section to that occupied by the rehabilitation and physiotherapy teams. Both of them are from Balakot and have had a limb amputated. They are victims of the earthquake. Omer Zeb painfully recalls how he held his youngest sister tightly to his chest under the roof of their home and realized that she had died. Nasir Crujjar was left an orphan.

Now they are having daily specialized treatment for their amputation wounds and exercise sessions to strengthen the stump and increase its angle of movement, with the aim of receiving an artificial replacement which will allow them reinsertion in society and subsequently, post-prosthesis treatment.

Omer and Nasir are just two examples of the 76,183 patients to have received physiotherapy in the Cuban contingent’s field hospital, who have benefited from 432,118 rehabilitation techniques, including sophisticated equipment like laser rays.

Hand of friendship in Pakistan

Saturday 28 January 2006


ROB MILLER looks at the work of a team of Cuban doctors relieving the suffering of earthquake victims in Pakistan.

THE UN officially acknowledged last week what the people of Pakistan have known for months - that the presence of Cuban doctors and nurses has been invaluable in relief efforts following last year's devastating earthquake.

In a report released on Wednesday, the UN reserved particular praise for the medical workers' role in ensuring that female refugees get the medical attention that they need.

Cuba has over 2,000 medical staff working in around 30 field hospitals in the earthquake-hit areas of Pakistan. In the Balakot refugee camp in northern Pakistan, for example, over 2,000 people made homeless by the October 8 quake are still suffering.

The camp's officials brought in an all-female Cuban medical team in an attempt to persuade the camp's women refugees to seek proper treatment. Many of them were not using the latrines and would not come out of their tents to see a male doctor, even when ill, since women are traditionally seen only by female practitioners.

But, once the Cubans arrived, a number of sick women came to see them at once. And, despite the language barriers, doctors and patients have managed to establish a basic level of communication.

Barriers have been overcome at the international level, too.

Considering that the two countries have no diplomatic relations and few areas of contact, Cuba's efforts in Pakistan are yet another testament to its amazing history of international solidarity work and emergency assistance.

According to the Cuban government, there are 2,260 participants in the Cuban medical mission, including 1,430 doctors. They have attended around 200,000 patients and saved the lives of hundreds of people.

'We never dreamt that the Cubans would come to this place, so far away, in such difficult times. They are doing a great job.'

In an interview with Cuban weekly newspaper Granma International, Pakistani army chief of staff Major General Nadeem praised the Cuban medical contingent's professionalism, commitment and determination to help earthquake victims.

"We never dreamt that the Cubans would come to this part of the world, so far away, in such difficult times. You are doing a great job and everyone who I have met in the areas affected by the earthquake is grateful for what you are doing here," he said.

Amazingly for such a small country, the major-general affirmed that the Cuban team is the largest international mission working in Pakistan today.

At one field hospital in the village of Danna, some 40km from Muzaffarabad, close to the earthquake's epicentre, the Cubans have brought everything needed to set up. This includes an X-ray machine, an ultrasound device, electrocardiogram and a mini-laboratory.

The hospital's deputy head, paediatrician Margarita Hernandez, said that the major health issue in the area is respiratory disease.

"There is so much pneumonia, bronchitis and dermatological illnesses, including scabies and dermatitis," she said, adding that upwards of 250 patients were currently visiting the facility. A month ago the number was around 350, mainly with injuries sustained during the quake.

In a unique expression of gratitude, a baby delivered at the Attar Shisha field hospital - staffed by Cubans - was given the name Cuba by her proud parents.

Overcoming cultural considerations like women's reluctance to see male doctors has been made easier by the fact that almost half of the Cuban team is female.

Labour MP Sadiq Khan confirmed the success of Cuba's medical assistance. "There were many pleasant surprises on my recent trip to the earthquake-affected areas of Pakistan," he said.

"One of them was seeing a medical tent with a Cuban flag proudly displayed outside. The doctors and other experts were doing a fantastic job relieving the pain of victims and alleviating some of the pain that many survivors were still experiencing weeks after the catastrophic earthquake."

Khan, too, recognised the special nature of the Cuban humanitarian effort. "Many of the victims and surviving members of families are female and the fact that such a large proportion of the Cuban team were women was not only extremely appreciated by the female patients but also demonstrated cultural sensitivities."

The Cubans are part of the Henry Reeve Contingent, an international team of doctors specialising in disasters and serious epidemics and named for US citizen Henry Reeve, who fought for Cuban independence in the 19th century.

It was set up in Havana in September last year in response to the devastation wreaked on the US by Hurricane Katrina. Cuba offered to send over 1,500 doctors to attend to Katrina's victims, but the Bush government rejected the offer.

Following the Pakistan earthquake, Cuba immediately offered 200 doctors and the Pakistani government initially gave authorisation for just 50.

However, following internal pressure - and presumably after seeing the results - the numbers have increased.

'In a unique display of gratitude, a baby delivered at the Cuban-staffed Attar Shisha field hospital was named Cuba by her proud parents.'

In November, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri met his Cuban counterpart Felipe Perez Roque and formally thanked the Cuban people for the solidarity and support with the Pakistani government and people after the quake. Cuba has pledged that the support will continue as long as it is needed.

Former international development secretary Clare Short recently criticised British NGOs and their work in disaster areas following the Asian tsunami.

"They follow the cameras," she said. "Ministers fly in and take up helicopter space and airport space and you get all the NGOs trying to grab headlines rather than co-ordinate and do a good job."

In the inhospitable mountain areas of Pakistan, where Western TV crews have long since moved on, it is reassuring - wonderful, even - to know that Cuban medics are quietly carrying on their humanitarian work without the need to broadcast their success. However, it is important that their work is recognised.

Perhaps the British government could facilitate discussions where experiences and lessons could be shared between the government, British NGOs and the Cubans, to further improve international disaster relief efforts in the future.

? Rob Miller is director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

Pakistan thanks Cuba: Nobody has surpassed the Cuban doctors

BY LILLIAM RIERA -Granma International staff writer-

“WE never dreamt that the Cubans would come to this part of the world, so far away, in such difficult times,” affirmed Major General Nadeem, chief of staff of the Pakistani Army, during a visit to field hospital number 20 in Muzafarabad in Kashmir where more than 55,000 people died October 6, 2005 due to a devastating earthquake.

This Cuban field hospital, staffed by 77 participants including 10 rehabilitators, includes intensive care, hospitalization and emergency units, among others, has attended to more than 9,000 patients and saved some 50 lives.

“What I saw during my tour of the installation is an expression of the professionalism, commitment, and determination of every one of you to help us. And in this nobody had been able to surpass you,” said Major General Nadeem.

“You are doing a great job, and everyone who I have met in the areas affected by the earthquake is grateful for what you are doing here,” confirmed the military chief, noting that the Cuban contingent is the largest working in his country today.

The Cuban doctors from the Henry Reeve International Contingent, who are in the Kashmiri area of Pakistan, had performed 3,572 operations - including 1,780 major ones - by December 25, 2005.

Bruno Rodríguez, first deputy minister of foreign affairs, explained that the 1,430 physicians making up this group of 2,260 participants have attended to 200,000 patients and saved hundreds of people in imminent danger of death.

According to official information, the earthquake left Pakistan with 73,000 dead and 70,000 wounded, including approximately two million child victims, and 3.3 million people homeless. Losses in the health and education sectors are calculated at $118.5 and $320.3 million, respectively.

Two months after the disaster, Indiana González Mairena, director of UNICEF in this nation, qualified the Cuban efforts as “effective and useful.”

"I am convinced that this is a solidarity effort that we would not find in many other countries with more or less resources than Cuba, but it is not a material issue but one of will," she emphasized in Islamabad.

Caring for survivors is the priority of Cuba’s medical personnel, who are carrying out their humane and noble labors in the areas most affected such as Bakalot and Muzafarabad, where they arrived with medicines, surgical instruments and materials.

According to a PL report, the communities attended by Cuban doctors have been declared free of risk from epidemics and are receiving universal and systematic medical coverage.


For the first time and coinciding with the arrival of the Cuban doctors, a woman gave birth in the Attar Shisha hospital, located on the road between Mansehra and Balakot. Dr. Míriam Salas Calvaire, on call that night, assumed the responsibility. She had experience attending other births from her internationalist mission in Zimbabwe. The infant girl was named Cuba.

Dr. Salas, who has already attended to more than 500 patients, explained to Granma that in Pakistan, where the climate is dryer, acute respiratory infections, scabies, muscular disorders, gastritis and urinary sepsis are abundant. In addition there are other illnesses such as abdominal tuberculosis, malaria and pellagra (vitamin B 6 deficiency), which are rare within the Cuban health system.

Twenty- two Cuban physicians and one nurse arrived at that hospital on October 31, 2005 and by December 16 they had seen some 5,700 patients representing 43% of the 13,000 inhabitants of the zone, 1,900 of whom are children.


Currently bulging with hundreds of tents where the Pakistanis, for fear of further tremors, are sheltering from the low morning temperatures, the once tourist town of Jared has been destroyed but... not forgotten by the Cubans. It is located at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains, where the earthquake resulted in 776 deaths, 1,500 evacuees and 5,000 wounded as well as the destruction of 98% of homes.

Field hospital number 13 has 43 Cuban health personnel, 29 of them are physicians. “From the beginning we have been supporting the Pakistani physician (Capitan Ashfaq Ahmed) who was here when we arrived,” surgeon Miguel Cabrera, for whom this experience “is beautiful and hard at the same time,” informed Trabajadores.

The beauty of this mountain-surrounded valley and the disaster provoked by the worst earthquake in memory is indelible in the pupils and the heart of these brigade participants, whom the inhabitants of Jared and other nearby locations already recognize and greet with affection.

In the opinion of Capitan Ahmed, the Cuban doctors “are excellent” and the nurses are “experts in all the techniques and procedures of the specialty.”


“I am surprised to see such participation and the people of my town are greatly appreciative of this really humane contribution,” said Ahmed, who confided that he felt more secure in being able to count on the Cuban specialists, with whose help “we are attending to 100 patients daily.”

Today, they are still working alongside him, giving consultations and providing ultrasounds, electrocardiograms, in addition to going to nearby towns to do field work, a journey they generally make on foot, in the chill of the morning.

Meanwhile, in another area of Pakistan in the refugee camp of Bassian, more than 160 kilometers and four hours distant from the capital, Colonel Atif Shafique affirmed without hesitation that “Cuba is now in my blood and in my sentiments.”

According to the head of the 21st Cavalry Regiment in the city of Peshawar, “the Cubans are not afraid of the weather or these low temperatures. They are only interested in helping people affected.”

For Faizan, a boy who lost his little sister and his home in the region of Muzafarabad, this human warmth has been vital.


Although he has already left the camp with his family, this child, who was tragically affected by the earthquake, says that he wants to go to Cuba to study medicine, recalls Dr. Dalina Aldás, 24, a recent graduate from the municipality of La Palma, in the western province of Pinar del Río.

Faizan helped us for a while as a translator and “calls us every day,” affirmed Aldás. ”We celebrated his 13th birthday in the camp and bought him gifts and a small cake.”

Yuramis González, a general medical practitioner from the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, recalled that when they arrived there were doctors from the United States, Holland and other countries. “We thought we would be rejected. Nevertheless, within a week the people were looking for us, and now they prefer our treatment.”

In one and a half months in Bassian, the area closest to the so-called “lost city” of Balakot, the Cuban doctors have attended to 9,000 patients and saved 15 lives, according to Dr. Jesús Roberto Mendivil López.

Dr. Mendivil expressed his thanks for the cooperation of the Pakistani army, which helped to assemble tents upon their near-nightfall arrival, offered them food and provided them with a translator, since in this rural area many of the residents only speak Urdu.

“Thanks to them we have better living conditions; they are helping us with purchasing food, with transportation and providing security for all of the doctors.”


Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, who had “the privilege,” as he himself acknowledged, of meeting members of the Henry Reeve Contingent in Pakistan in full force, recalled the amazement of the Pakistani soldiers at the fortitude and disposition of the Cuban women who represent nearly 50% of the members of this humanitarian aid mission.

In his address to the Cuban Parliament on December 23, he mentioned that a military chief told him how he was asked to correct himself in the chief of staff, when he stated that, upon reaching a point at which the jeep could not continue because the road was closed, the Cuban women carried their backpacks on their shoulders and walked five kilometers. When they saw that, the Pakistani soldiers decided cooperate with them.

The International Contingent of Doctors Specializing in Disaster Situations and Serious Epidemics that carries the name of American Henry Reeve (who fought for Cuban independence in the 19th century) was established in Havana on September 19 by President Fidel Castro, during the national graduation ceremony of 1,905 doctors.

The Henry Reeve Contingent was initially organized in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in the United States, when Cuba offered the assistance of more than 1,500 doctors to attend to the victims, which was rejected by the Bush government.

The current Contingent is made up of those same doctors plus 200 volunteer 2004-2005 medical graduates; 200 from the previous year; 600 students in their 6th year of study and 800 in their 5th year during this 2005-2006 school year. Fidel explained that young students from Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States attending the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana could also be incorporated.

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