Caracas, Venezuela – For Venezuela’s deeply anti-American socialist regime, it would have seemed a point of pride that malaria was well control for decades.
After all, the South American nation was certified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as having eradicated the mosquito-borne disease in 1961, nine years ahead of the United States.
But, in fact, under the watch of socialist presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and aided by the economic crisis that has overwhelmed the nation, malaria cases have skyrocketed almost as quickly as the inflation rate in the last few years.
And the epidemic – made more serious by medicine shortages and the government’s refusal to acknowledge a problem – is threatening to spread into neighboring Brazil and Colombia.
According to the WHO’s 2015 World Malaria Report, Venezuela spent less than a dollar per person at-risk of contracting the illness on malaria control – the second-lowest figure in the region.
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“There has been an increase of 356 percent in the reported cases in comparison to the 1990s,” Dr. José Félix Oletta, a former Health Minister, told Fox News Latino. “This year we could end up with more than 200,000 cases.”
According to unofficial figures gathered by a national organization of doctors, 125,158 infections have been diagnosed to date in 2016, 72 percent more than last year during the same period and very nearly the same amount as was recorded in all of 2015, 136,402. Which was itself already a 75-year high.
What makes the situation even more dire is that the most deadly form of the disease, Plasmodium falciparum, is among the strains commonly found in the country.
And things are only likely to get worse.
“The Health Ministry’s annual report for 2015 reported that 300 mosquito nets were handed out in the entire country, even though 800,000 people live in high-risk areas,” Oletta told FNL.
An old nemesis
In the 1930s, Venezuela was hit badly by malaria with around a million people, a third of the country’s population, being afflicted. In the decades that followed, the government implement strict measures, and the country became one of the first to eliminate the disease.
According to WHO data, cases began to increase again after President Hugo Chávez took power in 1999.
“The [Chavistas] dismantled the traditional programs and agencies,” Oletta told FNL. Then the price of oil collapsed and the country’s economic crisis set in.
Inflation has spiraled out of control in the country, with the International Monetary Fund estimating that it could surpass 700 percent this year. As purchasing power decreased, people from all corners of the country have flocked to gold mines in the southern state of Bolívar to increase their income.
Many of the mines originally belonged to overseas mining companies, but were nationalized under Chávez. Later, many were mismanaged and abandoned, leaving the region open to unregulated wildcatters and crime gangs who now control many municipalities.
And the area of Bolívar where the gold mines are located is notorious for malaria.
Malaria can be treated effectively and at little cost with the proper medication – something that’s as true for the Plasmodium vivax strain of the disease, the most common in the Americas, as for the deadly falciparum.
A full treatment for the latter ordinarily costs just several dollars for a full treatment, according to a New York Times report.
By 2016, however, there were drastic shortages of all malaria medications in Venezuela.
Oletta told FNL, “Doctors say there is just a one-month supply of medicine available for the [falciparum] form of the disease.”
Dr. Leopoldo Villegas, a malaria expert working in Bangkok, Thailand, told the Times that the Maduro government has relied on outdated and ineffective means to fight malaria, including fogging with insecticides. Beyond that, the government is denying the problem exists, making assistance impossible.
“This is an emergency. This is an outbreak, and it’s not being dealt with by the government,” he told the newspaper.
A deadly export
Malaria has reached every corner of Venezuela.
“In the municipality where most of the mines are located, we have now a population of 400,000, and around 160,000 of them are migrants from other states,” Erick Leiva, head of the Sifontes Chamber of Commerce, told FNL.
When these part-time miners return home even just for a short vacation, in many cases they bring malaria with them. The result is that malaria is reappearing in towns where it hadn’t been present for decades.
“Thirty years ago we had malaria cases in 48 municipalities and 8 states. That number has increased now to 72 municipalities and 16 states,” Oletta told FNL.
The state of Bolívar borders both Brazil and Guyana and extends across Venezuela’s waist, nearly touching Colombia.
Gustavo Bretas, a Brazilian malaria expert, pointed out to the Times that there are a number of illegal gold mines across the border from Bolívar in his country. Venezuela’s malaria problem, he said, “is starting to spill over into neighboring countries.”
In Colombia, some 60 percent of the 50,000 reported cases of malaria this year – which are already top 2015 figures – have been falciparum, according to Doctors Without Borders, a big change from previous years.
In many ways, the lack of information can be as deadly as the disease itself.
Puerto Viejo is a town on the Caribbean coast in the northern state of Vargas, a 12-hour drive from Bolívar’s gold mines.
“In April, two guys got sick and the doctors didn’t know what they had,” Gabriela Martin, a Puerto Viejo resident, told FNL. “One went to Caracas and was diagnosed with malaria. After him, at least 50 people were infected in a matter of weeks.”
The case gathered enough public attention that the country’s Health Ministry provided medicine and all the official patients recovered.
A young fisherman who wasn’t officially diagnosed with malaria, however, died during the outbreak after presenting all the classic symptoms. But the government never said whether or not the mosquito-borne infection caused his death.
“We can’t really know what happened to him because the government remained silent,” Martin said.
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.