HAVANA, Aug 19 (Reuters) – Cuba will send nearly 500 doctors to the Calabria region of southern Italy, Cuban state media reported this week, as part of a broader program that sends surplus doctors from the communist-ruled island to countries in need.

State media Cubadebate said Calabria had suffered from a shortage of doctors since 2010, as part of a nationwide health crisis, and had been unable to meet the needs of a another way.

“All regions are doing their best to hire doctors but cannot find any,” Cubadebate said, quoting Calabrian President Roberto Occhiuto. “This problem is much more serious in Calabria.”

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Occhiuto separately confirmed the deal in a video posted to social media.

Cuba will send 497 doctors of various specialties to the region over the next few months, starting in September, Cubadebate reported.

About 40 countries on five continents, including Italy, have received Cuban doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the island nation – home to just over 11 million people – has far exceeded its weight in medical diplomacy.

Since its 1959 leftist revolution, Cuba has dispatched its “army of white coats” to the sites of disasters and epidemics around the world in the name of solidarity. Over the past decade, they have fought cholera in Haiti and Ebola in West Africa.

Cuba has exported doctors for more routine assignments in exchange for cash or goods in recent decades, one of the main sources of hard currency. The United States has criticized the program, saying the working conditions are exploitative, a charge Cuba denies.

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Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Paul Simao

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