US hospital ship begins 5-month mission in the Americas

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2018 file photo, line handlers wait as the US Navy Hospital Ship USNS Comfort arrives pier side at Naval Station Norfolk, in N

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2018 file photo, line handlers wait as the US Navy Hospital Ship USNS Comfort arrives pier side at Naval Station Norfolk, in N

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort begins on Friday a five-month medical assistance mission in 11 countries of the Americas affected by Venezuela's humanitarian crisis.

Capt. B.J. Diebold, the mission commander, said the goal of the $34 million operation will be "addressing all our partner nation needs," so it will not focus exclusively on the Venezuelan crisis.

Almost 200 military medical professionals, 100 health providers from non-governmental groups and 13 providers from five other countries will offer services.

The ship will provide six clinical days during stops in Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Saint Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Capt. Kevin Buckley, commanding officer of the Military Treatment Facility, said the team expects to see at least 500 cases a day at each stop, though weather and transportation of the patients could affect the final figures.

Buckley said the health ministries in each of the countries are vetting the patients who will receive care. Most will involve low-risk surgeries such as cataract, laparoscopic cholecystectomy and hernia repairs.

The ship will also provide care by dentists and optometrists.

Vice President Mike Pence announced the mission last month.

The USNS Comfort's tour in the region last fall provided medical assistance in Colombia and several other countries where most of the Venezuelan migrants have settled to escape their homeland's crisis.

More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled in recent years and Trump administration officials have warned that an additional 2 million are expected to flee by the end of the year if the crisis continues in the once-prosperous nation.

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Luis Alonso Lugo on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/luisalonsolugo