Venezuela is ignoring another public health crisis: Diphtheria

The DPT vaccine protects against Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis. (Creative Commons)

The Venezuelan government’s apparent denial of the resurgence of diphtheria, a dangerous respiratory disease, has prompted confusion over the scope of the outbreak and renewed criticism of the Ministry of Health’s lack of transparency.

Diphtheria is a highly infectious disease that’s easily preventable with vaccines, but can be deadly if the bacterial toxin enters the bloodstream, leading to heart failure and neurological illnesses. Even with adequate treatment, 5 percent to 10 percent of cases are fatal.

Media accounts suggest at least 20 cases have been reported in Venezuela in just one month, including the deaths of four children in the southern state of Bolivar. But the opposition party, Democratic Unity Table (MUD), said that since April, 23 people have died.

The actual count remains unclear. The Ministry of Health and the Institute of Public Health expanded vaccination campaigns in schools and health centers in affected regions, but the ministry did not publicly acknowledge the reappearance until October, and seemingly only did so to downplay the situation.

“There are some 23 deaths [attributed by doctors]. That is totally false,” said Minister for Health Luisana Melo. “It’s all under control, and the epidemiological fence was made and the strategy for vaccination of the population increased.”

Meanwhile, opposition lawmaker José Manuel Olivares, who told Fox Latino he has information of at least 20 diphtheria-related deaths since April, said members of the Intelligence Agency Sebin are “chasing” doctors in Bolivar to try to keep them quiet about the outbreak.

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One official tried to blame the crisis on other countries. Diosdado Cabello, a prominent Chavista, said Venezuela is the target of a “germ warfare orchestrated by the C.I.A. labs.” There is no evidence to substantiate that theory. Some public health officials suspect that Venezuelans brought the disease back from Brazil, where they went to buy food.

The government’s many critics consider the reappearance of diphtheria to be glaring evidence of the country’s collapsed health system. Even if the Maduro administration decided to address the issue directly, some experts say the crisis-stricken South American country lacks the ability to stem the spread of diphtheria with vaccines.

Doctors recommend three doses of the diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT) vaccine before a child’s first birthday, but according to Venezuela’s former Minister of Health Jose Felix Oletta, Venezuela has had significant gaps in its immunization programs, El Pais reported.

“Ninety percent the population should it be vaccinated to prevent an epidemic, but in the last decade in Venezuela that coverage was not reached,” he told El Pais.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), global coverage of the DPT vaccine reached 86 percent in 2014. For that year, 129 countries had 90 percent or more coverage against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

“Venezuela was not on that list. It has not met this goal in the last decade. Until July there was a high risk [of an outbreak]in at least seven states,” Oletta told El Pais.

Venezuela has also been criticized for its failure to protect citizens against malaria, which has surged this year with nearly 12 times more cases than in 2000. According to the WHO’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.

While concerning, Venezuela’s shortcomings in fighting infectious diseases are unsurprising. The Ministry of Health has failed to publish accurate data on diphtheria, Zika, dengue, malaria and numerous other health concerns since its last Epidemiological Bulletin in November 2014.

In the wake of the recent surge of diphtheria cases, Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly has called to punish the health minister for lack of transparency.

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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