Eradicated diseases return amid Venezuela’s crisis

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The Pan American Health Organization embarked on a vaccination campaign in Venezuela in 2018. (© Ary Silva/PAHO/WHO)

BY EMILY LOUISE BOWMAN

Illnesses such as measles and diphtheria have re-emerged at alarming rates in Venezuela at a time when 22,000 doctors have left the country and 75% of hospitals lack basic medicines typically available in functioning hospitals.

Interim President Juan Guaidó lays the blame squarely at the feet of Nicolás Maduro. “Health systems have collapsed, a growing number of children are suffering from malnutrition, and previously eradicated illnesses have re-emerged,” he wrote in the New York Times.

The World Health Organization declared record cases of measles, diphtheria and malaria in Venezuela in 2018. Only two years ago, the organization granted the Americas a certificate of eradication for measles — a world first. Now, the Western Hemisphere is fighting off its return.

“The devastation of the health care system and the shortages of food and medical supplies have spurred outbreaks of treatable diseases,” Ambassador Nestor Mendez, assistant secretary-general of the Organization of American States, said of Venezuela at the 70th session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Americas in September 2018.

“This humanitarian crisis has significant implications for the rest of the Americas,” he said.

Health authorities in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador have documented measles cases that share the same genotype as the kind found in Venezuela. Each country hosts a portion of the 3.4 million Venezuelans living abroad.

The latest shipment of humanitarian aid for Venezuela was delivered to Cúcuta, Colombia, on March 7. The U.S. Agency for International Development shipment included medical supplies to help stop the spread of disease and to prevent and control infections.

Since 2017, the United States has provided more than $152 million in humanitarian assistance to help Venezuelans and support the countries and communities that are hosting Venezuelans who have fled their country. With this new shipment of medical supplies, the United States has now pre-positioned the nearly 365 metric tons of relief supplies, including food, medical supplies, hygiene kits, and nutrition products at the Colombian border.

Attempts on February 23 to transport aid into the country were blocked by Maduro’s orders to the Venezuelan military to stop its entry, despite many who defected or refused to follow his orders.