The Dr LEE Jong-wook Memorial Prize for Public Health of US$ 100 000 was awarded to the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade (Cuba).
Established in 2005 by more than 1500 Cuban health professionals, the Henry Reeve Brigade is integrated into the medical cooperation unit of the Ministry of Public Health of Cuba.
Cuba’s international medical emergency response experience began over 40 years earlier, when physicians and nurses trained in disaster medicine and infectious disease containment, were dispatched to Chile in 1960 after a catastrophic earthquake. This marked the beginning of Cuba’s internationalist outlook and health cooperation.
Since its creation on 4 September 2005 by Chief Fidel Castro Ruz, 24 brigades made up of 7000 teams have volunteered their support in 21 countries including the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Chile, China, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, and Peru.
Most recently the Henry Reeve Brigade supported the Ebola virus response in West Africa, in 2014 where over 250 health professionals worked among affected communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.
UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, and WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, had asked the Cuban President, General Raúl Castro Ruz, for the involvement of health personnel to fight the Ebola epidemic. Cuba’s positive response was immediate.
Felix Baez, a Cuban trained doctor of internal medicine and representing the Brigade to receive the Dr LEE Jong-wook Memorial Prize, was posted to Sierra Leone in October 2014. “My first Brigade experience had been Pakistan, after the 2005 earthquake, where the harsh cold was the biggest threat. This was my first time in Africa, and even the month-long rigorous training from experts in WHO/PAHO couldn’t prepare you for working in 42 degree heat in special suits, in very difficult conditions.”
The Henry Reeve Brigade worked in the region until May 2015 in the spirit of their intended objective, to show international solidarity and contribute to improving global health. “I was privileged to work with the first patients at a treatment and holding centre in Freetown where 3 to 5 patients arrived every hour– not knowing if they were infected or not. I worked alongside NGOs, Partners in Health, Save the Children – all nationalities, all languages. We arrived as complete strangers, but left as part of a huge family.”
The international assistance provided by Cuba does not detract from the care of its own population which benefits from a National Health System which is universal and free at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels and has a total of 493 368 health workers, with a ratio of 80.2 doctors, 15 dentists and 79.3 nurses per 10 000 inhabitants.
Felix Baez developed fever and other symptoms while working in Sierra Leone and after testing negative for malaria – which killed two of his colleagues – he was then found to be infected with the Ebola virus. Felix was treated in Kerry Town then medically evacuated to Switzerland and Cuba, and returned to Sierra Leone one month later to complete his posting.
“I was humbled and enriched by my whole experience, both as a professional and as an individual. I am much more sensitive to the risks facing our patients – the possibility of death in such situations, and the need to die in dignity. My attitude to the disease also changed; Ebola is not a death sentence. With a rapid response, confidence in the protocols and in our equipment, Ebola can be beaten. And this creates hope.”
“For the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade, the award of the Dr LEE Jong-wook Memorial Prize for Public Health is an invaluable recognition of our work and an incentive to continue to extend our solidarity and assistance to all people facing emergencies or natural disasters.”
The Dr LEE Jong-wook Memorial Prize is managed by the Korean Foundation for International Healthcare (KOFIH) and awarded to individuals or groups, governmental or non-governmental, who have made an outstanding contribution to public health and extended far beyond the call of normal duties.
“Doing the right thing, in the right place, in the right way, was a familiar saying of the late Dr LEE Jong-wook “ , said the President of the KOHIFI Foundation , Yohan IHN. “We are delighted to honour his memory with this award to the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade. “