Cuban Disaster Preparedness: Lessons Learned

Guest blogger: Joe Vargas

The California Disaster Medical Services Association, in conjunction with the Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC), provided an opportunity for 17 health care professionals to be part of an exciting research team to examine Cuba’s acclaimed public health system, including its renowned disaster preparedness and medical response systems. The research group traveled to Havana, Cuba in December 2010 for nine full days of lectures, educational presentations and interchange with Cuban medical professionals and public health response teams. Although the United States has not had diplomatic relations with Cuba and travel is restricted, the group was allowed permission under the US treasury’s general license for professional research that includes full-time health and emergency response professionals doing research in Cuba.

During the visit, the group examined Cuba’s elaborate yet unsophisticated system for population protection during disasters. Given their limited physical, technical and transportation resources, the Cuban people, including school children, are taught at an early age about their role and responsibility in a disaster. Education is compulsory up to the 12th grade. Cuba’s hurricane-prone geographical location has necessitated an efficient and coordinated approach with an emphasis on accurate, early and frequent communication information. These internationally recognized measures include prioritized evacuation procedures for vulnerable populations that include high-risk seniors, pregnant women, disabled and individuals living in remote areas where flooding occurs. Transportation is prearranged using city buses to evacuate large communities to safer ground until the storm diminishes. Other preparatory efforts include frequent meteorological reports, monitoring and the shutdown of power and utilities days before the storm arrives. Cuba is one of the few countries that offer early advisories and information phases as preludes to the hurricane watch. Historically, very few deaths and injuries have occurred as a result of the many powerful hurricanes (Charlie, Wilma, Ivan) that have struck Cuba using this preparation approach.

The group also toured several medical facilities including Havana’s polyclinics (neighborhood clinics). At these facilities, the research team was able to view Cuba’s robust primary prevention-focused medical system and understand its critical ties to civil defense teams and meteorological and information sharing systems. Highlights included meeting with grassroots organizations in disaster preparation, response and recovery, including neighborhood organizations and the neighborhood-based physician medical team. The Ministry of Public Health directs all health sectors to support a comprehensive system of healthcare specifically oriented to prevention activities and primary care. Family physicians work in residential neighborhoods where they are provided a home and a functional clinic. Working alongside a nurse, they are responsible for approximately 80-130 families in their community. This closeness allows healthcare professionals to provide immediate emergency and personal care to their neighbors. Physicians develop an overall understanding of all their community needs, which contributes to their overall wellness and whose population health indicators are comparable to developed countries like the US and Canada.

Team members will be sharing their experiences throughout the country at conferences and workshops. To schedule a presentation or for further information you may contact Joe Vargas at jvargas [at] ochca [dot] com.

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