Malaria Grips an Already Ailing Venezuela

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August 15, 2016, The New York Times

Powerful writing by the intrepid Nicholas Casey traces how Venezuela’s convulsing economy is spreading malaria throughout the country via those who become infected while wildcatting in illegal gold mines in remote jungles. It is a state secret. There are no officially published epidemiological reports. Casey learned of this rising epidemic from Venezuelan doctors responding to the crisis.

In the first six months of the year, malaria cases rose 72 percent, to a total of 125,000, according to the figures. The disease cut a wide path through the country, with cases present in more than half of its 23 states. And among the malaria strains present here is Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes the most fatal form of the disease.

From Hugo Chávez’s death and the country’s heavy reliance on oil exports that plunged it into hyperinflation and debt causing the food shortages and hardships for many today, NPQ has been reporting on this old but urgent story. The consequences of this new development, however, may be unimaginable.

President Hugo Chávez expropriated the gold reserves from a Canadian company to help fund his Socialist-style revolution. Possessing the world’s largest oil reserves, the state eventually abandoned the mines. People from all walks of life, including professionals whose salaries are reduced to essentially nothing by inflation, are driven to take their chances at the mines, where at least some money is being made. Once infected, the wildcatters return home, but most cities have no food, let alone medicine and fumigation, to prevent mosquitoes there from biting them and then passing malaria to others.

The economic breakdown has “triggered a great migration in Venezuela, and right behind it is the spread of malaria,” said Dr. Moreno, a researcher at a state-run laboratory in the mining region. “With this breakdown comes a disease that is cooked in the same pot.”

This was never supposed to happen. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation likely did not see this crisis coming in its work to help eradicate malaria. After all, Venezuela beat the United States in 1961 in becoming the first nation to be certified by the WHO for eliminating malaria in its populated areas. Today, the incidence of malaria is rapidly increasing across the globe, and resistance to available drugs is growing, with nearly 40 percent of the world’s population living in regions where malaria is endemic. Malaria is an ancient, deadly, cagey, resilient disease. The parasites have spent centuries adapting to life in the human body. But who could have predicted there would be an outbreak in Venezuela because the country’s economic collapse is driving its citizens into the jungle to pan for black market gold?

Though Venezuela tops Bloomberg’s Economic Misery Index, solutions must be sought that transcend the revolutionary, authoritarian, socialist strivings that compel the country’s leadership to resist international help. The IMF, the World Bank, and the business establishment will not help solve this crisis with free market scolding. The same problems persist in other once-poor countries where the presence of mineral and oil wealth leads to political conflict, corruption, and sometimes civil war. Venezuela is a country at the brink of catastrophe. Malaria is preventable and controllable. As new records are being set at the Summer Olympics in neighboring Brazil, the world also needs to experience a triumph of imagination. For Venezuela, it’s a race against time.—James Schaffer