Cuba: training medical personnel to respond to humanitarian emergencies
Cuba is one of the countries in the region that regularly faces humanitarian emergencies caused by natural disasters, especially hurricanes. In 2011 the Caribbean was hit by 19 tropical storms, seven of which turned into hurricanes. These natural phenomena leave a trail of destruction in their wake, along with health needs requiring urgent attention. In Cuba in 2008, in addition to the suffering they caused people, hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma did enormous damage to the economy and seriously impaired the health services.
In the past six years the Cuban authorities have been working on a plan for responding to a potential earthquake in the province of Santiago de Cuba. At the same time, Cuba is also well known for the assistance it provides through its health missions, in which it sends doctors and other health workers to other countries.
Last May, therefore, health professionals from various provinces in Cuba and three trainees from the National Red Cross Societies of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras took part in a Health Emergencies in Large Populations (HELP) course held in Havana. Here they were trained in vital aspects of public health and learned to improve their capacity to implement humanitarian aid programmes in emergencies.
The HELP course has been run since 1986 in different contexts, and has trained over 2,900 professionals. This one was made possible jointly by the Latin American Centre for Disaster Medicine (Centro Latinoamericano de Medicina de Desastres, or CLAMED), the Cuban Red Cross and the ICRC.
“The HELP course will be an extraordinary tool with a huge impact on participants. This new version of the HELP course in Cuba is undoubtedly an important step”, said Dr Julio Teja, who teaches on the course – a former minister for public health who is himself a former student in the same training module.
The main goal of the HELP course is to train for “good professional capacity to cope with emergencies by providing people with assistance and protection”, he explained. The participants – all health professionals with local or international experience – learn to hone their ability to analyse the different emergency situations, set priorities and provide humanitarian responses in line with health needs.
According to Paul Bouvier, an ICRC health adviser who coordinates the HELP courses, “in an emergency, it’s not enough to meet the immediate health needs – we need to anticipate other needs that can suddenly arise, by providing shelter, water or protection, for example. They are essential to health, and if they are not taken care of they can lead to worse problems, such as epidemics or pandemics.”
María Estrada, coordinator of the health work of the Guatemalan Red Cross, says this training will help her improve the decision-making process and make it more consensual and relevant. “Experience shows that, in the event of catastrophes, natural disasters and similar situations, the humanitarian response must always be well coordinated and consensus-based”, she explained.
This course was coordinated by CLAMED, which is attached to Havana’s University of Medical Science, in cooperation with the Cuban Red Cross and the ICRC. It is planned to consolidate this experience, to make it sustainable and to offer a similar course every year.