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Chinese medical teams win respect around the world

Updated: 2013-08-18

In the last half century Chinese medical aid teams have entered 66 countries and regions and treated 260 million patients who previously had access to only poor medical technology. From the first group of 24 doctors in 1963 to today’s number of 23,000, they are called “China doctors” by the local people.    

From doubts of competence to dependence 

Back in July 1962, when Algeria in North Africa declared its independence from French colonial rule, almost all of the foreign medical staff and medical facilities were withdrawn. Algeria was short of medical services and supplies and rife with diseases. 

To relieve the people’s suffering, the Algerian government appealed to all countries for medical support.

China was the first country to announce to the world that it would dispatch a medical team to Algeria. It transferred a group of doctors from hospitals in Beijing and Shanghai to the country in 1963. 

Instead of being welcomed, local people doubted the ability of Chinese doctors, wondering if their medical skills were as good as those of the European doctors.    

To earn the local people’s trust, China arranged doctors-in-charge to work as house doctors and young physician to service as nurses.

Even so, a patient did not believe the diagnosis of a gastric ulcer given by a Chinese doctor and went to a big city 170 kilometers away to have another test, the results of which were the same as the original one.     

In Algeria, cataracts were frequently seen but couldn’t be treated. A Chinese ophthalmologist cured a patient with a combination of traditional Chinese and Western medicine. Convinced by this case, the local people started to spread the news. 

In this way, the medical teams carried out a series of large surgeries and cured many rare illnesses, meeting treatment requirements throughout the country. 

Acupuncture therapy became known across Algeria when it was used to treat an amputee who suffered from "phantom limb pain". After that, the Chinese medical team was known as having "magic needles". 

When the half-year aid period was due to expire, the Algerian government persuaded the Chinese medical team to stay for three more deployments, so the medical team didn’t return to China until October 1965. 

In two and a half years, the medical team treated more than 370,000 people, performed over 3,000 surgeries, delivered more than 1,000 babies, and never had a medical accident. Many of the babies, who came to the world through the hands of Chinese doctors were named "Chinois" by their parents, which means “Chinese” in French. 

Since then, the Chinese medical teams spread across Africa and extended to the developing countries of Asia, Latin America, Europe and Oceania.

In addition, the medical teams built hundreds of modern hospitals for the recipient countries and carried out short-term deployments. 

They are trusted and loved by the local governments and people. Up to now, 1001 medical team members have been awarded medals and other honors by the leaders of the recipient countries. 

No regrets in life 

In the 1970s and 1980s, the hospitals of the recipient countries were in poor condition, and medical team members often had to make medical facilities by themselves, such as shadowless lamps, surgical beds, high-pressure disinfection pots and other surgical resources. And they even grew vegetables and raised chickens for a rainy day due to lack of living supplies.

The greatest suffering comes from homesickness. 

The working period of foreign medical aid is usually two to three years, but the local government often asks them to stay and their return is long-delayed. The team members can’t take care of their parents or share time with their loved-ones; neither can they educate their children.

A team member left home when his wife was in the seventh month of pregnancy. He had thought that he would return China in one year, but the date of return was delayed again and again. It turned out to be two and a half years later that he finally got home. Instead of jumping into his arms, his son was all at sea facing his father.   

Some even lost their lives. 

At that time, the recipient countries were mostly places of environmental concern, with frequent wars and rampant diseases. Particularly in Africa epidemics such as AIDS, malaria, and typhoid, which are rarely seen in China, are common. 

In the face of these diseases and the lack of effective protection, team members are exposed to the risk of infection with each treatment.

In Mali, blood spattered into a Chinese doctor’s eyes when she was operating on an AIDS patient. After the operation, she told her colleagues that if she contracted AIDS, she would not go back to China and hoped to be buried in Mali. 

Over the half century that China has sent medical teams to foreign countries, 50 team members lost their lives due to disease, wars, work-related injuries and accidents. Most of them were buried in foreign countries. 

Medical teams that will never leave

The team members hope that what they bring to the benefitting countries is not only external assistance but also technological self-reliance. 

In 1965, then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited Zanzibar and told the medical team that as they would go home eventually they needed to train local medical staff who would be permanently in place. 

There is a critical shortage of doctors in Zanzibar. Of the 614 medical staff, only 34 were doctors and of them only two were local. 

To improve this situation, the Chinese medical team members started to work as both doctors and teachers. 

In the past 50 years, the team has trained a large number of medical personnel for the recipient countries through clinical teaching, academic lectures in other ways. 

The team brought a number of advanced clinical medicine technologies to the recipient countries, including cardiac surgery, tumor excision, limb replantation and minimally invasive medicine. Meanwhile, they introduced traditional Chinese medical treatments such as acupuncture and massage. 

In addition, since 2003, China has held dozens of training courses for foreign medical personnel, inviting hundreds of doctors and health professionals from developing countries to China for training in infectious disease prevention and treatment, health service management, traditional medicine, clinical surgery and nursing techniques.

In fact, medical aid is only one of the nine major tasks in China's foreign aid. Other projects include technical cooperation, human resources development and cooperation, emergency humanitarian assistance, foreign aid volunteers and debt relief.

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