HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban doctors and U.S. military personnel could work side-by-side in West Africa as part of international efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak, possibly leading to improved bilateral relations, a top Cuban health official said on Friday.
The two long-time adversaries are among the countries aiding West Africa, where Ebola has killed some 4,546 people since the outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever began there in March.
Cuba is sending the largest medical contingent to West Africa from any country in the world: 165 doctors and nurses are in Sierra Leone and another 296 are scheduled to depart for Liberia and Guinea next week.
The United States is sending 3,000 military engineers, medical personnel and other troops to the region.
“We are going to work side by side ... with anybody who is there, and our health minister said in his speech that includes the Americans,” Jorge Perez, director of the tropical disease hospital where Cuban doctors train for their Ebola mission, told reporters on Friday.
“Why wouldn’t we if we are scientists? In this instance we are friends,” Perez said.
The Cuban medical personnel undergo three weeks of training at the Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute on the outskirts of Havana, where health officials set up a field hospital of tents to simulate conditions in West Africa.
Cuba’s first group of 165 doctors and nurses in Sierra Leone are still undergoing a 15-day training there before treating patients.
The communist-led Caribbean island has sent medical brigades to disaster sites around the world since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Cuban and U.S. personnel have worked together before, notably after the Haitian earthquake in 2010.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the Cuban effort earlier on Friday.
“We are seeing nations large and small stepping up in impressive ways to make a contribution on the front lines. ... Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals, and it plans to send nearly 300 more,” he told diplomats at the State Department.
Perez said he received a “boost” from the comment and he believed Kerry was pressing other countries to follow Cuba’s lead.
Asked if the U.S. and Cuban efforts could improve diplomatic relations, Perez said, “I think it could, and I think it’s important.”
Cuba submits any travelers coming from the affected region to at least 21 days of isolation at the Pedro Kouri Institute. So far 28 people from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Congo, Nigeria and Cuba have been isolated, including 12 being held currently.
“If you don’t want to be observed, no problem. You have the right to go back to your country, but don’t come to mine,” Perez said.
Besides medical diplomacy, Cuba sends doctors overseas in exchange for money or goods, notably Venezuelan oil, making professional services a top export earner. More than 50,000 Cuban medical personnel are posted in 66 countries.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Kieran Murray and Ken Wills