Strained Relations Between Colombia And Venezuela Hamper The Fight Against Zika Virus : Goats and Soda Colombia would like to coordinate with Venezuela to fight the virus. That's not happening. Meanwhile, Venezuelans who cross the border may be bringing Zika with them.
NPR logo

Venezuela Won't Talk To Colombia About Zika — And That's A Problem

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/467803305/467841012" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Venezuela Won't Talk To Colombia About Zika — And That's A Problem

Venezuela Won't Talk To Colombia About Zika — And That's A Problem

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/467803305/467841012" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Zika outbreak is aggravating an already tense relationship between Venezuela and Colombia. In Colombia, more than 37,000 people have fallen sick. Venezuela reports fewer than 5,000 cases, a number that Colombian officials find suspicious. Meanwhile, Zika is flowing freely across the border. NPR's Narith Aizenman visited one crossing - a bridge over a dry riverbed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

NARITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: It's early evening, rush hour. A guard on the Colombian side lets through a bust carrying school kids on their way home to Venezuela. A stream of people is walking in the opposite direction into Colombia - old women wheeling suitcases, teenage guys in backpacks. A young family walks by. Their 2-year-old plays hide-and-seek with us from under the canopy of her stroller.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER)

AIZENMAN: Johanna Villamizar is the baby's mother.

JOHANNA VILLAMIZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: She says her mother is Colombian. Her father is Venezuelan. So the whole family has dual citizenship. Her husband, Carlo Martinez, tells me they own an auto parts shop on the Venezuelan side.

CARLO MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: So you wake up in the morning. You head over the border to work to your job in Venezuela, and then you come back every afternoon.

Officially, Venezuela has closed this border to most traffic due to a political dispute. Venezuela's economy is in shambles. They're trying to blame Colombia. Colombia says that's ridiculous. But Venezuela is still letting hundreds of people pass every day. Johanna Villamizar says for her, it's like the border doesn't exist. And the same seems to hold true for the Zika virus. Practically everyone in her family has gotten it on both sides. She ticks off the list.

VILLAMIZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "My grandmother and aunt, a cousin." So far, she's been able to avoid infection, but Zika's got her worried. She's pregnant, and she's heard the reports about a possible link between this mosquito-borne virus and birth defects.

VILLAMIZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "I spend all my time spraying myself with repellent," she says. But plenty of other people I meet say they don't bother, like Shirley Llanos, a physiotherapist wearing gray scrubs...

SHIRLEY LLANOS: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "...Because I'm pretty I've already had Zika," she says. She came down with the symptoms in December - rash, fever, aches. Even so, she says she kept on working through most of it, commuting from her home in Venezuela to a hospital on the Colombian side.

LLANOS: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: That's a pattern that worries Colombian officials. See; the mosquitoes that transmit the virus between humans don't actually travel far. This is an epidemic that's being spread by sick people moving from one place to another.

(CROSSTALK)

AIZENMAN: At a state capitol building on the Colombian side, the head of the state health department has been struggling to limit the Zika outbreak. Juan Bittar says his work is being hampered by almost complete denial on the Veneuzuelan side.

JUAN BITTAR: (Through interpreter) We know Venezuela is full of Zika right now, and a lot of people who are sick with Zika in Venezuela are coming to Columbia for medical attention.

AIZENMAN: A big part of the problem is that because of the economic crisis in Venezuela, there's a shortage of everything over there...

BITTAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: ...Including medication, hospital beds, doctors, nurses. Bittar says that ideally, he should be coordinating closely with his Venezuelan counterparts, pooling data so they can focus mosquito-fighting efforts on border communities where the virus is spiking. But relations have gotten so complicated, he says, I can't even pick up the phone to call them. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News, Cucuta, Colombia.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.