Venezuela once led Latin America in the battle against malaria and other diseases. But the country’s economic crisis has sparked a resurgence of several illnesses, which are creeping across the country’s borders into Colombia, Brazil, and further afield.
Stephen Gibbs reports from Caracas.
It’s lunchtime in a community center in Caracas.
Young mothers and their children are eating a free meal, donated by a local charity.
Of the 20 or so people here, we found two that had something in common.
Both had been afflicted in the last fortnight by a mosquito-borne disease.
Jose, who is two, was recovering from a severe case of hemorrhagic dengue.
“When we came back one day, he had blood coming from his ear. They sent me to a hospital where they said it wasn’t dengue, it was a parasite,” Jose’s mother, Nicole Medina said.
It was dengue, and eventually José had to have a blood transfusion. He is fine now, but, he is lucky.
Another mother is recovering from a bout of Chikungunya, a debilitating virus.
“I had fever, dizziness. I lost weight and so did my child because i was breastfeeding,” patient Angelys Rodriguez said.
Both women said the situation was complicated by Venezuela’s economic decline. Jose’s mother said there had been no anti-mosquito fumigation by the government here for 13 years.
Stories like theirs are told millions of times over in this country, which is facing the most serious public health crisis in its history.
“The problem in terms of the scale is huge for Venezuela. We have almost 1.2 to 1.5 million cases of malaria, close to 10,000 cases of diphtheria and close to 9,000 cases of measles,” Venezuela Institute of Tropical Medicine Dr. Julio Castro said.
The figures the doctor quotes are just estimates. That’s because the government here has not released comprehensive data on diseases since 2006. Those on the front lines of the fight in this public health crisis are making educated guesses.
In the case of malaria, the disease itself carries some clues. Gene tests of infected patients in South America have shown that most infections originated in Venezuela.
One reason for the marked rise is a surge in wildcat gold mining in southern Venezuela. Hundreds of thousands of people now come here, where malaria has long been prevalent, to try to make a living, and then return to other parts of the country.
For Dr. María López, president of the Venezuelan Society of Infectious Diseases, the malaria example shows how this country is in the midst of a “perfect storm” for the spread of disease.
“The health situation here is serious, we are in a complicated humanitarian emergency – because this is about health, but it is also happening against the background of a social and economic issue which is only making things even worse,” Dr. Lopez said.
One issue she cites is that of water. As part of a general deterioration of public services, at least half of Venezuela’s hospitals, and millions of homes, are without reliable running water, a massive public health challenge on its own.
The economic collapse here has been a key factor behind the rise and re-emergence of several diseases. And, it has left the government ill-equipped to tackle the problem.
President Nicolas Maduro argues that outside factors, especially recent U.S. sanctions, only increase the hardship the Venezuelans face. Washington says this is a crisis of his own making.
Either way, this region is learning, once again, that Venezuela’s problems are spreading beyond its borders.