Tramping through the Himalayan snows to treat patients after the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, internist Félix Báez could never have imagined he would be on the front lines of Ebola in Sierra Leone nine years later….much less that he would contract the deadly virus, live to tell the story and also to return to his team in Africa to continue the fight. At his side in the Geneva University Hospital, where he was airlifted, was Dr Jorge Pérez, today director of Cuba’s Pedro Kourí Tropical Medicine Institute (IPK), but best known as “Cuba’s AIDS doctor.” Times have changed for both physicians, and Ebola is first on their minds as it rages on. At this writing, while there is cautious optimism in Liberia, the epidemic is not yet under control. Ebola has already infected nearly 22,000 people, taken over 8600 lives; Sierra Leone is one of the countries hardest hit. Among the sick and dying have been too many local health workers: 103 of the 138 infected, at last count. The first to sound the global alarm was Doctors Without Borders, which, like Cuba, already had health professionals on the ground in Africa; they were joined by many more, and Cuba was the country that offered the most assistance once WHO called for nations to step up with funds and, most importantly, human resources. Cuba sent 256 volunteers, all with significant international emergency experience: 38 to Guinea, 53 to Liberia and 165 to Sierra Leone. And more wait in the wings, specially-trained disaster medical workers who have already received their first round of Ebola courses at IPK. These Cuban and other international volunteers are bringing patients back from the brink of death, assisting national health workers and community educators. And people like Jorge Pérez are working to get to the bottom of Ebola to help prevent its spread throughout Africa and to other parts of the world. But to keep an epidemic like this from happening again, it will take more, much more. Not only could the global community have done a better job this time around. But as Jim Kim, President of the World Bank admonished, Ebola didn’t start with disease, but rather with historic inequalities, the virus festering within health systems barely able to function. A lesson for us all. Hours before Dr Báez’s return to Sierra Leone—where he is now—MEDICC Review interviewed him and Dr Pérez at IPK in Havana.
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