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Health care workers in Sierra Leone earlier this year.

Health care workers in Sierra Leone earlier this year.

© EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre

Cuba to commit large health corps to Ebola fight

The Cuban government is sending 165 doctors and nurses to battle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced this morning in Geneva, Switzerland, at a joint press conference with Cuba’s minister of public health, Roberto Morales Ojeda. The health care workers, 103 nurses and 62 doctors, are going to be deployed to Sierra Leone in the first week of October.

It is the biggest contribution of health care staff by any single country so far to help control the epidemic, noted WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. “This will make a significant difference in Sierra Leone,” Chan said.

To put the numbers in perspective: WHO has deployed about 500 foreign medical experts to the region. Because they rotate, at any one time about 170 of them are in the affected countries, Chan said.

Ebola has already sickened at least 4784 people and killed 2400 in the biggest outbreak on record, and its spread is still accelerating. Several governments have pledged support. For instance, the British government and the Wellcome Trust medical charity have announced they will spend £6.5 million to speed up research on Ebola vaccine candidates. Germany’s Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development has announced it is increasing its contribution to WHO to fight Ebola from €1 million to €10 million. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $50 million to fight Ebola. But that does not address the main problem, experts say. “Money, materials are important, but those alone cannot stop Ebola transmission,” Chan said at the press conference. “The thing we need most of all is people.”

According to WHO, more than 200 health care workers are needed to run an isolation ward with 70 beds. While it is still unclear how many Ebola patients there are altogether, WHO estimates several hundred extra beds are needed in Liberia alone. At the moment there is not a single bed available in the whole country to treat Ebola patients, Chan said.

Several people on the ground in Liberia have confirmed that Ebola patients are being turned away at the treatment center in Monrovia to avoid staff being overwhelmed. “We need more actions. We need to surge at least two to four times in order to catch up with the outbreaks in these three countries,” Chan said. “I hope the announcement today will stimulate more countries to surge their support.”

*The Ebola Files: Given the current Ebola outbreak, unprecedented in terms of number of people killed and rapid geographic spread, Science and Science Translational Medicine have made a collection of research and news articles on the viral disease freely available to researchers and the general public.