Cuba Responds To Ebola Crisis As Black Market For Convalescent Serum Emerges

David Kroll  |  Forbes  |  September 12, 2014

Cuba will be sending 63 doctors and 102 nurses, epidemiologists, specialists in infection control, intensive care specialists and social mobilization officers to set up World Health Organization-funded Ebola clinics in Sierra Leone. The workers will deploy in the beginning of October and stay for six months.

Delegates unanimously elected Dr. Roberto Morales Ojeda, Minister of Health of Cuba, as the President of the Sixty-seventh World Health Assembly. Here Dr. Roberto Morales Ojeda addresses the plenary of the World Health Assembly. Credit: WHO/Violaine Martin

At a World Health Organization press conference this morning in Geneva, Minister of Public Health of Cuba, Dr. Roberto Morales Ojeda, announced the island nation’s commitment of human medical resources.

Morales Ojeda, a general medicine physician holding a master’s in public health, was unanimously elected in May as president of WHO’s World Health Assembly.

Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, said that the Cuban response was the first since her United Nations visit last week and “international rescue call” by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for a scale-up of aid and personnel to combat Ebola in west Africa.

Chan said today, “The thing we need most of all is people: health care workers.”

Chan was careful to express gratitude to countries such as the U.S. and U.K. for their existing support, particularly the CDC and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She hoped that the announcement will stimulate other countries to revist their current level of support as the Ebola outbreaks continue to expand.

Independent of the localized outbreaks in Nigeria and Senegal, the west African nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia 4,700 confirmed, probable, and suspected Ebola cases with over 2,400 deaths (unpublished, as of September 12). Liberia is hardest hit currently, with 59% of their cases and 62% of their deaths occurring in 21 days preceding the last formal WHO report (data as of September 6).

Cuba is contributing to the second most-affected country, Sierra Leone, in part because they already have some infrastructure on the ground. Sierra Leone has had 1,361 cases of Ebola infection with 509 deaths.

It did not escape notice that while the WHO held a one-hour-plus press conference devoted entirely to the Cuban announcement, no mention was made of yesterday’s commitment of $50 million to the Ebola containment effort by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Track record in international aid

Cuba’s commitment to domestic and international public health is well-known in the epidemiology community. Cuba was the first country to eliminate polio in 1962 and eliminated measles in 1996. Northwestern University’s International Program Development unit offers a summer program in Havana on public health in Cuba that is open to students across the U.S.

Cuba also a burgeoning biotechnology presence as evidenced by the Finlay Institute and Centers for Vaccine Research and Production. Finlay researchers produced the first vaccine for group B meningococcus.

In his opening statement this morning, Dr. Morales Ojeda went on at length as to Cuba’s commitment of medical personnel in disasters as early as the year following the 1959 revolution, when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Chile.

Among the list of aid efforts provided by Cuba in the last 55 years, Morales Ojeda noted that the country offered 1,100 doctors and 26 tons of food and supplies to New Orleans residents following Hurricane Katrina. The offer was not accepted.

Morales Ojeda offered the list of Cuban contributions as evidence that their support “was not an isolated event” and represents what he calls the country’s “principle of not giving what is leftover, but sharing what we have.”

Convalescent serum black market

Last week, a WHO-convened panel of international experts in medicine, the pharma and biotech industry, and relief and granting organizations recommended that countries hardest hit by the virus should initiate transfusion programs using serum from convalescent patients who’ve recovered from Ebola infection.

Near the end of this morning’s press conference, Dr. Chan confirmed reports that a black market is emerging in the sale of such convalescent serum. While not providing specifics on countries and areas where such sales are occurring, she warned that these supplies carry no assurances that they were collected appropriately and are free of virus.


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