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The thieves descended on the Institute of Tropical Diseases in downtown Caracas from a nearby forest.
Once inside the compound that is part of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), they went on a rampage, leaving behind a trail of littered floors, broken glass and smashed doors. They took away medicine, computers, printers, microscopes, cables, laboratory glassware and air conditioners.
Foolishly, they also stole laboratory animals like rabbits, mice and chicken inoculated with parasites and bacteria.
“Who knows what could have happened to these people. They could have gotten severely sick or put other people in danger if they sold the animals in a market,” said Dr. Nahir Martínez, 50, the head of the virology department at the institute, the biggest and most prestigious in the country. Worries were etched in her otherwise placid face as she walked through the desolate part of the compound where the stolen animals had been held.
This recent break-in, one of dozens the institute has suffered in last couple of years, shows to what extreme desperate Venezuelans are willing to go in order to survive in a country plagued by widespread lack of food, medicine and basic goods.
However, the most devastating consequence of the burglaries: the loss of computers that contained national information about possible virus hot spots, databases of infected patients and other vital records.
With medical experts already lacking consistent and up-to-date information about the virus occurrences, these incidents serve as another blow to the doctors, scientists and medical researchers trying to keep Venezuela safe from the real possibility of a lethal epidemic outbreak.
Venezuela, with its diverse ecosystem, perfect temperature range and human migration, is home to all kinds of infectious agents, experts say. They know that any spread can be checked by vigorous information sharing and strict adherence to sanitary rules.
“All this broke down in recent years and when we add to the mix missing medicine, no running water, the poor diet of many Venezuelans and robberies, we have an explosive cocktail,” said Dr. Oscar Noya, 67, a leading expert on malaria at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV).
Noya points to malaria as one possible, catastrophic outbreak. According to Noya, the increasing number of malaria cases is already alarming. Back in 1961, Venezuela was the first country in the world that eradicated this life-threatening disease transmitted by mosquitoes. Now, there might be up to 2 million cases of people suffering from malaria symptoms, Noya estimates.
“I am afraid any infectious disease could sweep through Venezuela at this point,” he said.
He is far from being alone in his bleak assessment. Dr. Julio Castro, 55, another prominent expert in the field of infectious diseases, is deeply worried that Venezuela could be the next Haiti of 2010.
That year this part of Hispaniola was destroyed by an earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people, according to government estimates, and less than a year after the tragedy, Haitians were decimated by a cholera outbreak that took another 10,000 lives.
“Cholera in Venezuela, on a scale of Haiti in 2010, really scares me,” said Castro, who also works at the Institute of Tropical Diseases.
Venezuela is struggling with persistent blackouts and water supply shortages, and just like Haitians, many Venezuelans now drink from and bathe, wash dishes, and relieve themselves in nearby rivers, inviting an infectious disease to emerge and spread, experts said.
Another issue, according to specialists, are dry pipes beneath Venezuelan cities and villages. They provide a welcome refuge for rats, cockroaches and other critters, exposing households to contaminated water once it starts running again.
“Everyone in Venezuela should always boil any water they get,” Noya said.
Medical professionals often blame the government for the information gap in disease prevention. The Nicolás Maduro regime does not release figures about public health data just like there are no publicly accessible statistics about inflation and crime. Castro refers to the lack of government data as an “information blackout” to keep the population and the world in the dark about what is occurring in Venezuela.
Castro tries to keep Venezuelans informed by getting crucial information through alternative channels. He has created a communication network of 40 hospitals scattered all around the country. Colleagues from these hospitals feed him the latest news and trends in their respective regions and provide him with their own observations and outlooks.
Castro also monitors conversations on social media platforms like Twitter and Google Trends to track down excessive usage of words like headache, vomiting or shivering that could point to a virus or bacteria-related disease indicators in a particular area.
Once he collects all the possible information, he posts an update on the Institute of Tropical Diseases website and other portals. He does that once per week.
Still, epidemiologists worry that a potential outbreak might simply be caught too late after it has already spread, when it would be very hard to deal with.
Martínez, the virologist, shares this concern. Now, as a result of the break-ins, she can’t make diagnosis of many viral diseases like Zika, Chikungunya, or Mayaro.
“Here at the Institute, we are the last line of defense, but we’ve become increasingly powerless,” she said. “Often, we have only a sensation of what might be happening out there.”