Crisis-hit Venezuela sees resurgence in infectious diseases

By Barbara Agelvis

Caracas, Oct 19 (EFE).- A recent Pan American Health Organization alert concerning confirmed yellow fever cases in Venezuela once again has raised alarm bells about the fragility of the country’s health-care system.

That South American nation, which is mired in a longstanding economic crisis and suffering under United States-imposed sanctions on its lifeblood oil industry, has seen a resurgence in at least four infectious diseases over the past five years.

In addition to the reappearance of yellow fever, Venezuela saw the re-emergence of diphtheria and malaria in 2016 and measles in 2017. Those latter three pathologies, however, have been contained thanks to assistance from international organizations like PAHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), according to health experts.

The specialists say those diseases, which had not been seen since last century, reappeared due to a lack of adequate public policies in the health-care sector and low immunization rates for vaccine-preventable diseases.

“Immunopreventable diseases surge, re-emerge, when vaccination coverage falls, when people stop getting vaccinated. And regrettably that’s what’s happened over the past few years in Venezuela,” pediatric infectious disease expert Maria Graciela Lopez told Efe. “And this (problem) has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic,”

While the government has started inoculating people against yellow fever, that has not been the case with other more common pathologies like rotavirus and pneumococcal disease.

Children had previously been immunized against those illnesses in their first few months of life at public health institutions, but those vaccines have not been administered in recent years.

“These vaccines (rotavirus and pneumococcal) have only been available in the private sector – of course, like everything in Venezuela, now dollarized – and so fewer than 10 percent of the population has access,” Lopez said.

She noted that Venezuela’s minimum salary is equivalent to just $2.40 per month and that, according to the recent Encovi living conditions survey, 94.5 percent of the population is below the poverty line.

The cost of vaccines in the private sector varies; in the case of the pneumococcal vaccine, a person can expect to pay between $80 and $150.

Venezuela has not published specific epidemiological data since Dec. 31, 2016.

“It’s regrettable that we don’t know how many cases we have of different pathologies. The epidemiological bulletin indicates cases of respiratory infections in general, of diarrheal infections,” the president of the Venezuelan Society of Infectious Diseases, Manuel Figuera, told Efe.

He said that due to a lack of more precise data doctors are unsure about the reach of influenza (a respiratory illness that also has become very common in recent years) in Venezuela.

The infectious disease expert also criticized a lack of investment in the scientific sector, in research development and in universities, as well as the failure to prevent the exodus of experts in epidemiology and infections.

The Venezuelan health system is being affected by “the loss of professionalism, expertise … that must be present in these health areas, at the managerial level, at the top level,” Figuera said. EFE


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