Puerto Rico’s Vieques island beset by US Navy contamination, lack of hospital

By Esther Alaejos

San Juan, May 3 (EFE).- The residents of Vieques island, part of the United States commonwealth of Puerto Rico, are now facing a double dose of misfortune.

In addition to a high incidence of various diseases that local inhabitants attribute to more than 60 years of US military exercises, that municipality eight miles (13 kilometers) from the Puerto Rican mainland also has been without a proper hospital for more than five years.

“The problem Vieques had was elevated contamination from the military services. We found that it had an incidence of cancer that was 25 percent higher than the rest of Puerto Rico’s population,” Zaida Torres, a 68-year-old nurse who worked at the Vieques hospital that was destroyed in 2017 by Hurricane Maria, told Efe.

Studies in Vieques, which the US Navy had long used as a firing range and testing ground for munitions until finally withdrawing in 2003 and embarking on a slow cleanup effort, have also shown high rates of illnesses such as asthma and heart and kidney disease, she added.

Local organizations say diseases such as cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as respiratory ailments, are much more commonplace on Vieques than in other parts of Puerto Rico, although the US Navy disputes those findings, citing an alleged lack of objective studies.

Ibis Raquel Cintron, a retired teacher in Vieques, told Efe that the third and last of her daughters was born with a mysterious health condition that she blames on the military exercises.

“She was born with a very strange condition (affecting) one of her eyes, and we think it could have been the contamination because my husband was also a Viequense and the two of us had already been contaminated because we were born and raised here,” Cintron said.

In addition to carrying out its own exercises on portions of Vieques and Culebra, another Puerto Rican island-municipality, the US Navy also rented those territories to other nations as a testing ground for their munitions.

“They contaminated with a lot of materials, and one of the things that had the biggest impact was mercury. It was found in children five years and older, and that’s a contaminant that causes learning problems,” Torres said.

The Viequenses also have been forced to face this situation without a fully equipped hospital. For more than five years, that 52-square-mile (135-square-kilometer) island has had nothing more than an emergency room for the provision of basic, urgent services.

“Holes in the roof caused the hospital to flood. I still remember that with horror,” Dr. Betzaida Machenzie told Efe.

A 70-year-old retired physician, she said she can still vividly remember what it was like working at a medical center “where the roof was falling in” following the passage of Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said in late February that a contract has now been signed among the Caribe Tecno construction company, the Vieques island-municipality and the Authority for the Financing of the Infrastructure of Puerto Rico to build a new hospital on the island in three stages.

A project slated to cost $85.6 million, it will have a dialysis center, an emergency room, an imaging area, laboratories, a pharmacy, dental and social services, an infusion center, administrative offices, external clinics and a heliport.

“This project for a new hospital is nothing new because it’s not the first time we’ve heard that was going to happen. It would be new if we saw that it were actually finalized,” local resident Yihana Melendez, a future medical student, said skeptically.

“Since I was young, we’ve always had this health problem and I felt the need to respond,” the 20-year-old added, recalling that she has long had the dream to study medicine.

As the years have gone by, she said her enthusiasm has only grown as she has witnessed a further deterioration in the island-municipality’s health situation.

“I think it’s important generally to study because we’ve seen the number of young Viequense university students steadily fall,” Melendez said on the University of Puerto Rico’s main campus in San Juan.

Torres also called for “educating the population, especially young people, and trying to create a program” aimed at keeping them in school.

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