More than 1,500 people from rural communities of Ocotepeque department, Honduras, which borders Guatemala and El Salvador, received humanitarian aid from a U.S. military medical mission. The villages of La Encarnación, San Fernando, and San Marcos benefitted from medical assistance and public health education from March 5-7.
The humanitarian brigade included members of Joint Task Force Bravo’s (JTF-Bravo) Medical Element, under U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), based at Soto Cano Air Base in Comayagua, Honduras. The effort was part of a Medical Readiness Training Exercise (MEDRETE) supporting the Honduran Ministry of Health and Ocotepeque’s Health Directorate. About 30 units of JTF-Bravo, including medical and military personnel, joined the mission with support from local health professionals and the Honduran Armed Forces.
“This year we conducted a dual activity: a surgical brigade and, at the same time, a medical and dentistry brigade in hard-to-reach municipalities,” Dr. Carlos Alberto Durón, JTF-Bravo medical liaison, told Diálogo. “There are various diseases in these areas, such as respiratory, digestive, gastrointestinal, and some illnesses that are prevalent year round, that are typical of the rainy season.”
Medical assistance and prevention
According to Durón, patients and participating Honduran health professionals were grateful and happy about the medical effort. “It’s good that U.S. personnel is not always the only service providers; rather, that there are also personnel of the Honduran Ministry of Health, so there is a record of the treatment given to each patient.”
For three days, members of the selected communities received general medical assistance, surgery, dental care and extractions, and medication. Elements of JTF-Bravo also provided health education and important information to prevent common illnesses.
“We can provide health and health education, such as proper hand washing, fluoridation for children, and [provide] vitamins for children, adults, and pregnant women,” said Durón. “We treat the population’s main cause of anemia, which is lack of iron in their diet. The vitamins are fortified with all the essential micronutrients people need.”
The communities were selected because they are hard to reach and because the Ministry of Health identified them as priority areas due to droughts and floods. Once selected, health professionals conducted epidemiological studies in each location to determine the main causes of diseases and assemble a brigade with the necessary help.
For JTF-Bravo, MEDRETEs also keep the medical team prepared and give its members the opportunity to continue to learn from new experiences. In addition to providing humanitarian aid, the brigade can “take a person who normally works in an office out of their comfort zone, putting them in a situation similar to disaster response,” Dr. Ricardo Avilés, JTF-Bravo medical liaison, told Diálogo.
Although the exercise focused on a region with vector-borne diseases, such as dengue, zika, and chikungunya, personnel also identified chronic degenerative diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and chronic gastritis. The region’s inhabitants also suffer from parasitic diseases, such as roundworms that affect mainly children.
“JTF-Bravo’s help consists mainly of detecting diseases [...] and informing people that we have great quantities of medicines to treat these diseases,” Durón said. “Leaving home for a week to receive medical assistance for a chronic disease sometimes isn’t possible because of the distance.”
For U.S. doctors, relieving patients’ pain is rewarding. Despite taking part in several MEDRETEs, doctors say they are still surprised by people’s gratefulness.
“We often meet people on the street who say, ‘You don’t remember me, but...’ and then comes the story about what happened,” Avilés said. “These things leave an impression.”
In 2018, Avilés participated in a MEDRETE in Francisco Morazán department, where a 19-year-old boy who had lost the ability to work underwent hand reconstruction surgery. “He came back one year later [to Ocotepeque’s MEDRETE] deeply moved. He just said, ‘I heard you were here, and I just came to thank you and show you my hand,’” the doctor said.
MEDRETEs date back to 1993. Since then, SOUTHCOM’s medical personnel provided humanitarian assistance and medical services to more than 480,000 people in Central America and the Caribbean. JTF-Bravo plans to conduct a total of 37 MEDRETEs in 2019 in the region.
“We are thankful for the United States’ commitment to provide humanitarian assistance. They are an important partner for Honduras, and we will always collaborate,” concluded Honduran Naval Force Captain José Domingo Meza, director of Armed Forces’ Public Affairs. “We are confident that, as a sister nation, it will continue to provide support with all its capabilities to benefit the people.”