An Israeli medical team from the newly established Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response at Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer Hospital in central Israel is the first – and so far only – international team to respond this week to a deadly cholera outbreak in the Eastern African nation of Zambia.
The Israeli team, which includes water engineers, tropical medicine experts, epidemiologists and general physicians, led by Dr. Elhanan Bar-On, the director of the Israel Center at Sheba, arrived in Zambia one week ago, on a relief mission, according to Lee Gat, a spokesperson for the Sheba Medical Center. Among the members of the team was Prof. Eli Schwartz, director of the Travelers’ Clinic and the Institute for Geomedical and Tropical Diseases, who has since returned to Israel.
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“Sheba’s team is the first to arrive and there are no other teams from the world there yet,” Sheba Medical Center’s Director General Yitzhak Kreiss tells NoCamels.
The infectious disease, which can kill within hours if not treated, has already claimed the lives of 62 people across Zambia since September 2017 with nearly 3,000 people affected nationwide, and over 80 new cases in the capital district of Lusaka alone, according to the Lusaka Times citing health ministry reports. The Zambian government has taken a number of emergency steps in response to the outbreak, including imposing a curfew on residents in a poor township of over 300,000 people in Lusaka to contain the spread.
The Israeli medical team in Zambia will treat patients at the Lusaka National Heroes Stadium, a venue for football matches that has been converted into a cholera treatment center.
Among the doctors who have already left for Zambia are Professor Arie Orgaren, director of pediatric screening, Orna Tzuria, a nurse in charge of pediatric screening, and Dr. Assaf Biber of the Infectious Diseases Unit. Gat also said the team includes an additional doctor and a lab technician dealing with laboratory management and supervision of experiments carried out in the lab. They are expected to stay in Zambia for two weeks.
A second team from the Sheba Medical Center will depart for Zambia on Wednesday night, Gat tells NoCamels.
Zambian officials initially linked the outbreak to contaminated water from wells, Reuters reported, but further investigation indicated that the source may have been contaminated food. Haen said that the Israeli team, worried about the roughly 500,000 residents of Lusaka who are exposed to potentially contaminated water wells near soil permeated with sewage, has asked local authorities to seal off the wells and begin distributing bottled water.
A presidential spokesperson for Zambian President Edgar Lungu told the Lusaka Times that the Israeli experts would provide immediate treatment as well as “technical advice and support that will help the government combat this problem,” in the long run.
“The technical advice will also include interventions for medium- and long-term to address sanitation problems especially in high-density population areas, focusing on the areas where the epidemic is most serious,” he said.
The spokesperson added that the Israeli team would focus on providing expertise on water purification and treatment “with the overall objective being to deal with cholera in a comprehensive manner.”
Kreiss, a former Israel Defense Forces Surgeon-General, said in a press release that the hospital’s “innovative medical expertise and tactics employed by our experts are today being dedicated to helping the people of Zambia and saving as many lives as possible from the tragic cholera outbreak.”
“Sheba Medical Center’s goal, which echoes the ethos of Israel, is to save lives and make a positive global impact,” he added.
The Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response is a new establishment created in the summer of 2017 for Sheba’s 70th anniversary. Staff members are highly experienced specialists and experts dealing with preparation for and response to global humanitarian crises, and emergencies. Last month, the Jerusalem Post presented the Sheba Medical Center with the Humanitarian Contribution Award at its Diplomatic Conference. Dr. Bar-On was on hand to accept the award on behalf of the hospital.
This is Sheba’s first humanitarian mission to Zambia but it has a number of missions across the continent including in Nigeria and Tanzania, the hospital said.
A history of humanitarian aid
Israel has routinely sent relief and humanitarian missions across the world and is often the first or among the first to respond to crises and natural disasters.
Israeli teams, including Sheba doctors and other personnel from various organizations, were on the ground in recent years leading relief missions in a number of disaster-struck areas including Mexico in September 2017, following a massive earthquake that left over 300 people dead, Puerto Rico during the same period following a hurricane, Nepal in 2015 after a devastating quake killed over 9,000 people, the Philippines following a typhoon in 2013 that killed over 6,000, and Haiti in 2010 following a catastrophic earthquake that killed over 100,000 and as many as 300,000.