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Venezuela’s Losing Its War on Infectious Diseases

“Before, we exported oil. Now, unfortunately we are exporting diseases.”

by Karina Meier, Alejandro Bernal, and Ramón Campos Iriarte
Oct 1 2019, 3:44pm

CARACAS — Venezuela once had one of the best health systems on the continent. Now, after years of economic and political crisis, it’s barely able to contain the spread of infectious diseases that were previously controlled or completely eradicated.

It's hard to say how bad the situation really is, since the country has not released any health data since 2014. But cases of malaria have more than tripled, according to The Pan American Health Organization, while diseases like Chagas, spread by a parasite that can cause heart failure, are appearing in urban areas where it was previously unheard of.

Basic supplies like needles and gloves are also constantly in shortage, and drugs often have to be shipped from neighboring countries like Colombia. Vaccines, too, are scarce.

To help the situation, doctors and medical students have filled in where the government’s long been absent, providing critical treatment to people who have little to no access to specialists and gathering data to get a clearer picture of the current crisis.

But it’s not just Venezuela’s problem anymore. With over 4 million Venezuelans having fled the country since 2014, their needs are overwhelming neighboring countries as well.

"Before, we exported oil. Now unfortunately we are exporting diseases,” said Dr. José Felix Oletta, who was Minister of Health before Hugo Chávez came to power. “Now we have the re-emergence of these diseases that are a risk for our population but also a challenge for the continent.”

Cover: Dr. Hernán Carrasco and his team inspect blood samples from kissing bugs at the at the Tropical Medicine Institute, in Caracas. Dr. Carrsco’s research focuses on mapping the state of Chagas disease in Venezuela. (Credit: Ramón Campos Iriarte)

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