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Is Venezuela's Collapsing Health System Ill-Equipped To Handle Zika?

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Is Venezuela's Collapsing Health System Ill-Equipped To Handle Zika?

Latin America

Is Venezuela's Collapsing Health System Ill-Equipped To Handle Zika?

Is Venezuela's Collapsing Health System Ill-Equipped To Handle Zika?

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The scale of the Zika virus outbreak in Venezuela is unclear. The government is reporting more than 5,000 cases with three related deaths. But independent Venezuelan physicians fear it could be as many as 400,000 infections. The outbreak is occurring in a country with a collapsing medical system, an economy in tatters and no funds to buy mosquito repellant, contraception or medicine.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Next to Colombia in Venezuela, the poor state of the country's medical system has health experts particularly worried about the rise of Zika. Colombian health officials say Venezuelans with Zika are crossing the border to seek treatment. Reporter John Otis is in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. He joins us now. And first, John, what's known about the extent of the spread of Zika in Venezuela right now?

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Well, it remains a big mystery, The Venezuelan Health Ministry said last month that there were about 4,000 cases of Zika, but there's also been a big spike in fevers that have nothing to do with the usual culprits like dengue or malaria. And so that's why there's a lot of doctors here speculating that the numbers of Zika cases could be much, much higher. Some will even say there's up to a few hundred-thousand cases. But again, this is speculation.

There've also been about 240 cases of Guillain-Barre. That's a disease that can cause paralysis and might be linked to Zika. So far, the government's reported no cases of microcephaly, but that could change because pregnant women who were infected with Zika when the virus first hit last year - they're going to start having their babies later this spring.

CORNISH: You mentioned doctors, but what are Venezuelan officials saying to the public about this?

OTIS: That's one of the big problems here. They're just not saying much. This is a very secretive government. They often withhold data about everything - just normal things like inflation or agricultural production. They stopped publishing their weekly health bulletins back in 2008, and - while other countries - presidents in other countries often use the bully pulpit to educate people about Zika. President Nicolas Maduro here in Venezuela - he'll often give speeches of up to five hours, but so far, he's barely mentioned Zika.

CORNISH: You know, you talked about the problems here - obviously political upheaval in Venezuela, a bad economy. When it comes to the medical system's kind of ability to handle something like this, what are the concerns?

OTIS: There are major, major concerns here, Audie. This country's going through a severe economic crisis, and that's left the health system in shambles. Oil is Venezuela's main export. The prices have collapsed, and so the government now lacks petrodollars to import medicines and even basic products to help prevent Zika like mosquito repellent or Tylenol to take care of the fevers. There's a major shortage of hospital beds, and you've also got brain drain because doctors who, because of the collapsing currency, are only earning a hundred bucks a month or so - a lot of them have left the country for better-paying jobs abroad.

CORNISH: What about the international community? What resources are people sending to help?

OTIS: Opposition lawmakers recently went up to Washington, and they asked the World Health Organization if they could provide emergency help to Venezuela. But for that to happen, for the World Health Organization operate, they need a formal request. And the Moduro government has refused to make that request because they just don't want to recognize that Zika's a problem here.

There was also a meeting of Latin American health ministers in Uruguay last month to discuss Zika, and Venezuela was the only country that showed up that failed to put forward a plan for combating Zika. So things look pretty grim here right now.

CORNISH: Journalist John Otis reporting to us from Caracas, Venezuela. Thank you so much, John.

OTIS: Thank you very much.

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