Malaria, other epidemic diseases return to Venezuela

Two-year old Valeria fled her small town of San Felix in southeastern Venezuela, not only escaping the political turmoil shaking her country, but a life-threatening disease. The young girl was diagnosed with malaria, an illness that reappeared in Venezuela around 2013 after 11 years of its eradication.

The mosquito-borne disease has affected large areas of Africa and Asia, and is commonly associated with poverty. Now, Venezuela is experiencing its comeback as a result of the humanitarian crisis roiling the region.

“I took my daughter to a hospital when she started showing symptoms of what we first thought was a cold,” said Valeria’s mother, Beatriz Garcia.

In the midst of the Garcia family’s despair, a major, week-long blackout hit the nation in March, including hospitals all across the country. Communication was almost impossible, and hospitals were overflowing with people, making it harder for the Garcias to find one willing to treat their daughter.

Valeria’s mother explains that after driving through two states, they were finally able to find a hospital in Puerto La Cruz that was operating during the blackout.

“The biggest shock of all was not only the fact that our daughter caught malaria, but that the hospital was afraid they didn’t have sufficient I.V. fluids to cure her,” said her mother.

The collapse of the Venezuelan health system has taken a deadly toll on the lives of millions of people. Critics say the government does not perceive health as a humanitarian right, but a tool of political intimidation.

“Malaria constitutes a regression of more than 80 years in the number of cases reported, meaning the number of malaria cases is equivalent to the incidence rates in the 1930s,” said Dr. Jose Felix Oletta, former Minister of Health under Rafael Caldera’s presidency in the late 1990s.

As part of the Venezuelan board of the Pan American Health Organization, Oletta has conducted extensive research tracking the origin of the country’s health crisis. His studies find that the fundamental flaw of the system is seen in preventive services and derives from the government’s restrictions of public health information.

“A well-informed country is a healthy country,” said Oletta. “The population should be guaranteed official government-sourced information, as stated by a series of international agreements and treaties, and as established under our national constitution.”

The Venezuelan government restricted the use of epidemiological information in 2007, and has ceased to publish data on epidemics in the country ever since, but the realities lived in hospitals speak for themselves. Malnourished children and adults suffering from deadly diseases such as malaria, diphtheria or even tuberculosis are being treated in hospitals lacking basic hygiene products, including soap. Children, like Valeria, face the biggest threat in society due to vaccine shortages.

Health associations of sanitarians have denounced the government and, absent action, brought them up to the Global Health Organization. However, the government denies any statistics depicting the country’s high mortality rates and overall health crisis.

“As the government reserves this critical information that belongs to the citizens, the citizens cooperate less, participate less, and know the risk factors of diseases less,” said Dr. Oletta.

After losing all hope of in finding I.V. fluids to clear the young girl of malaria, the Garcias headed to neighboring Colombia to seek treatment and save her life. She is still recovering in Colombia, and her parents claim she is one of the very few lucky ones.