Government ‘indifference’ leads to malaria surge in Venezuela, health officials charge

Blood smear of Plasmodium falciparum, a parasite that can cause malaria in humans. (Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Released into the public domain)

The Venezuelan government’s attempts to downplay the country’s most pressing public health issues have likely contributed to this year’s alarming increase in malaria cases.

At a news conference on Monday, Douglas Leon Natera, president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation, said the South American country has registered more than 180,000 cases of malaria this year, 80 percent of which were reported in Bolívar state. This is compared to 136,402 malaria cases reported in Venezuela in all of 2015, which was already a 75-year high.

According to the World Health Organization’s 2015 World Malaria Report, Venezuela spent less than a dollar per person at risk of contracting the illness – the second-lowest figure in the region.

“We make a call to the government to take the necessary corrective measures,” Leon said, adding that the country’s public health problems have taken place under the indifferent gaze of the national government, according to the El Impulso report. “We understand the political reason to conceal everything,” he said, “but it is not feasible if we are to have more effective diagnostics.”

Venezuela was certified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as having eradicated the mosquito-borne disease in 1961 – nine years ahead of the United States – but throughout the years under socialist president Hugo Chávez and current president Nicolás Maduro, malaria cases have resurged.

The Maduro administration’s refusal to address the problem has been exacerbated by the country’s crippling economic crisis, which contributed to widespread medicine shortages and the neglect of eradication efforts in recent years. What’s worse, Venezuela and neighboring countries have seen a rise in the most deadly strain of malaria, the falciparum parasite, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

This year’s surge in Venezuela’s malaria cases has now been a topic of concern among eradication and health professionals worldwide, as the epidemic threatens to spread into neighboring Colombia and Brazil.

At Monday’s news conference, Leon also gave an overview of other diseases that have plagued Venezuela in recent months. Annually, he said in the El Impulso report, the country has recorded more than 83,000 cases of dengue and 4,000 cases of tuberculosis.

He also denied the government’s claims of carrying out mass vaccinations in Bolívar against diphtheria – a disease that hadn’t appeared in Venezuela for 25 years until local public health associations recently reported at least 17 cases. The ruling party governor of Bolívar, Francisco Rangel, said on Twitter that the state would administer 400,000 vaccinations, according to Reuters, while Leon said the figures were closer to just 25 or 30 vaccines daily.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com