GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. health agency has given Israel top marks for its disaster relief capabilities, lauding the unparalleled ability of the Mideast country to deploy full medical teams to treat the injured and the sick after natural disasters or outbreaks of viruses.
The WHO certification program of emergency medical teams sets standards of care for international response to health emergencies such as the Ebola virus in West Africa, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 or Haiti's earthquake in 2010.
Last week, the World Health Organization program gave Israel's team the first-ever top grade for its ability to deploy field hospitals, provide medical services and be self-sufficient in a crisis zone.
Dr. Ian Norton, who heads the EMT initiative, said Israel's scored best among the 75 national and non-governmental group teams. The teams are judged on their ability to act self-sufficiently in devastated communities and provide the most adequate treatment.
Israel's team is "probably two to three times the size of any other team that we have currently," Norton said. "They literally bring 220 people to the field, they weigh 100 tons — they are enormous — they provide at least 90 to 100 beds, including a 12-bed intensive care unit, which is really expensive and difficult to run."
While Russia and China were among the first to receive WHO certification over the summer, Norton said he hopes teams from other countries will soon reach Israel's level. He also expressed hope that when it comes to natural disasters, politics will not prevail and that countries that shun Israel over its politics, would not hesitate to call the world's most robust emergency response team for help.
"Maybe this is one of those ways that disaster emergencies can bring people together," Norton said. "A way that ... you could put politics aside for a moment and just concentrate on saving lives."
Norton noted how U.S. support for Cuba's deployment of medical staff to West Africa during the Ebola crisis "helped pave the way for normalization" of ties between countries, alluding to renewed U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties.
About half of the 75 teams are government-led, and the others are from non-governmental groups such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Dr. Ofer Merin, a lieutenant-colonel in the Israeli reserves who commands the Medical Corp.'s field hospital, said gaining WHO recognition was a point of pride for Israel.
Merin said a team which arrives in a disaster zone without the right equipment or protocols risks turning into a "burden" on the affected country.
"There's no question that all of us will be able to deploy better to each one of our missions in the future," he said. "It's not just that we got the stamp that says 'we're the best team.' We gained a lot from this process, which means our future patients will gain a lot."
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.