Subject: ABC: Cuba steps in to aid East Timor health system

ABC Online

The World Today - Cuba steps in to aid East Timor health system

The World Today - Tuesday, 4 July , 2006 12:30:00

Reporter: Anne Barker

ELEANOR HALL: While East Timor's leaders still struggle to deal with the country's political crisis, the violence of recent weeks has exposed the poor state of health care in the fledgling nation.

There's a serious shortage of doctors, hospitals are rudimentary, and some towns have never had a local doctor.

But a bilateral agreement with Cuba has begun to turn that around, as Anne Barker reports.

(Sound of people speaking in emergency department)

ANNE BARKER: This is the emergency department at Dili's Guido Valadares National Hospital. The sick and injured are wheeled past on trolleys.

(Sound of trolley)

Among them, some of the victims of the many weeks of violence in Dili, many with machete or gunshot wounds. Other patients who are well enough sit outside in the sun.

(Sound of birds chirping)

Guido Valadares is East Timor's biggest hospital, but conditions here couldn't be more basic.

There's little in the way of modern medical technology. Even doctors are in desperately short supply.

(Sound of Karen Torres Roses speaking)

Karen Torres Roses (phonetic) is one doctor who specialises in women's health and gynaecology.

"I work with pregnant women in the national hospital," she says, "and I assist their labour. I do ultrasounds."

At first glance she might be East Timorese, but Dr Torres is from Cuba.

"East Timor has one of the world's highest mortality rates for children," she says. "60 in every 1,000 babies die before they're one."

Dr Torres is one of several hundred Cuban doctors in East Timor. 286 Cubans have come across the world to help build East Timor's health system from scratch.

When the Indonesians pulled out in 1999, there were barely 20 practicing doctors left in the country. Entire communities had never had a single doctor, under Indonesian rule or the Portuguese.

In the last year it's Cuba that has stepped in to help.

The man in charge is Dr Francisco Medina.

"There's a lot of solidarity between Cuba and East Timor," he says. "We feel for the East Timorese and their suffering."

Since 2004, Cuban doctors have spread to every district and sub-district in East Timor, staffing clinics and field hospitals, often for a pittance in pay.

Cuban flags have become a familiar sight outside their homes. Many are now here for the long haul. Dr Medina plans to stay for at least six years.

"We are just some of the 27,000 Cuban doctors," he says, "working in 69 countries - in Africa, America, countries that need help, like East Timor."

"The problems in East Timor are very similar to all the poor nations throughout the world," he says. "Malaria, tuberculosis, infant mortality."

In return, more than 300 East Timorese students are now in the Cuban capital, Havana, studying medicine. And in Dili, Cuba has funded a new medical faculty at Dili's National University.

East Timor's Health Minister, Rui De Araujo, says eventually he hopes his country will produce its own doctors.

RUI DE ARAUJO: We're now in the process of recruiting more students, and hopefully the end target would be to train doctors so that by 2015 we would have at least one doctor for 1,000 people in this country.

ANNE BARKER: So is there a political connection, some sort of solidarity between the Fretilin-led Government in East Timor and the Communist Government of Cuba?

RUI DE ARAUJO: Well, I don't see that as the main reason for establishing this bilateral work, even though it might give the impression that that would be because some political affinities. All the Cuban health professionals are doing purely health work.

ELEANOR HALL: That's East Timor's Health Minister, Rui de Araujo, speaking to Anne Barker in Dili.

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