In 2016, after a massive, decades-long vaccination campaign, the World Health Organization declared Latin America free of measles — the highly contagious virus that curses the young and can cause pneumonia, encephalitis and even death.
But less than two years later, a virulent outbreak in Venezuela, combined with a mass exodus from the South American country, is threatening that medical success story.
According to new figures from the Pan American Health Organization, Venezuela has seen 886 cases of measles since June, including 159 cases this year alone.
The second-biggest outbreak in the hemisphere this year is Brazil, with 14 cases, and all of them were imported from neighboring Venezuela. Colombia has also reported three confirmed cases, all from Venezuela.
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Oil rich and once exceedingly wealthy, Venezuela used to have a medical system that was the envy of the region. And under late President Hugo Chávez, the country prided itself on providing healthcare to the neediest.
But the nation’s deep economic crisis, combined with a mass desertion by doctors and widespread corruption, have devastated the medical establishment.
José Félix Oletta, who was minister of health from 1997 to 1999 and runs a nonprofit called Venezuelan Alliance for Health, said the country seems incapable of providing even basic medical attention.
In 2016, Venezuela was hit with a diphtheria outbreak, a bacterial infection that is also easily controlled through vaccination. And it has also seen a spike in the last few years of malaria, tuberculosis and other maladies that most thought were vestiges of the past.
The outbreaks are “clear examples” of how basic health programs have broken down, Oletta said. His organization estimates that more than one million Venezuelan children haven’t been vaccinated for measles in the last decade — and that’s putting the entire region at risk.
“For every person identified with measles, we estimate that another 20 could be infected. It has an enormous capacity for dissemination,” he said. And in that sense Venezuela’s measles outbreak “represents an international public health emergency.”
The National Survey of Hospitals, an independent report published last week, found that 88 percent of the 134 medical centers studied were missing basic medicines, and 100 percent said their pathology labs were inoperative. Venezuelans regularly flood Colombia and Brazil looking for medical care they can no longer get at home.
The health crisis strikes as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing the country, escaping political turmoil, and chronic food and medicine shortages.
The measles outbreak in Brazil is centered in northern Roraima state — one of the major crossing points for Venezuelans heading into Brazil. Last week, Brazilian heath authorities asked the World Health Organization for permission to begin mandatory measles vaccinations for Venezuelans entering the country.
Experts say Venezuela’s health crisis is being exacerbated by a virtual blackout on official information. The country’s National Statistics Institute hasn’t published health indicators since 2011. And the last time the Health Ministry issued its “weekly” epidemiological report was 2016.
Calls to Venezuela’s Ministry of Health seeking comment went unanswered.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), however, has reported at least two measles-related deaths in Venezuela since June 2017. As a result, it has activated a “rapid response plan,” and says it has helped the government import more than six million vaccines to contain the virus.
But Jose Manuel Olivares, an opposition legislator and the president of the congressional health commission, claims there’s evidence of at least 40 measles-related deaths. And he complains the government isn’t saying how or where the vaccine is being administered.
As he’s visited hospitals and health centers nationwide in recent weeks, he says the lack of vaccines is painfully evident.
“If PAHO is sending vaccines to the country, we don’t understand why the government isn’t vaccinating,” he said.
He speculated the medicine was being stockpiled to be used closer to the May 20 presidential election to give President Nicolás Maduro a boost.
“It would be very sad if it [the vaccines] were part of an electoral show,” he said.
PAHO appears to be one of the few organizations that have been able to provide aid to the Venezuelan government.
Other organizations, including the Red Cross and Caritas, an arm of the Catholic Church, have said they’ve been denied permission to bring in basic health supplies.
The governments of Brazil and Colombia have also called on the Venezuelan government to accept international aid.
The Maduro administration has expressed fears that foreign aid might be used to undermine the socialist government. Diosdado Cabello, the vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, recently said the country doesn’t need humanitarian aid, it just needs the United States to end financial sanctions on the country.
Experts point out that Venezuela’s health crisis started years before the United States, in August 2017, barred U.S. financial institutions from dealing in Venezuelan debt.
But last week, the U.N. Human Rights Committee adopted a resolution condemning the use of unilateral sanctions, saying they have “far-reaching implications” on basic human rights and disproportionately affect “the poor and the most vulnerable classes.”
Olivares, the congressman, said it’s the Venezuelan government’s failed social and economic policies that are to blame for the outbreak.
“We have a health crisis in the country, and in the case of measles it was being controlled in the entirety of the Americas with a simple vaccine,” he said. “But the government won’t acknowledge that it has a problem, much less that it might be responsible for what’s happening in Colombia or Brazil.”