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As Venezuela grapples with an escalating humanitarian and political crisis, experts are warning about a surge in potentially deadly diseases transmitted by insects that could jeopardize public health improvements in the country and the Americas.
Venezuela is seeing a resurgence in diseases like malaria, dengue, the Zika virus and Chagas disease, according to a report published Thursday by medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
The diseases are transmitted by insects such as mosquitoes, ticks and kissing bugs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Chagas disease, malaria and dengue can lead to death if not treated properly.
Once one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America, Venezuela used to be a leader in public health efforts and in mosquito control programs — so much that in 1961 WHO certified it as the first country to eradicate malaria.
Almost six decades after this milestone, Venezuela finds itself wrestling with one of the largest malaria increases reported worldwide, according to the report.
An analysis of published and unpublished data shows that Venezuela saw an estimated 359 percent increase in malaria cases from 2010 to 2015. While nearly 30,000 malaria cases were reported in 2010, the number shot up to 136,402 in 2015 and 411,586 in 2017.
In some Venezuelan municipalities, “malaria incidence is likely to be linked with an increase in illegal mining activities and forest exploitation,” the report reads.
The incidence of dengue increased by more than four times from 1990 to 2016, according to the report. Similarly, the frequency of Zika outbreaks with epidemic potential appear to be increasing as experts found 2,057 cases of Zika virus per 100,000 people.
The prevalence of such diseases comes at a time when Venezuela is going through a crisis of historic proportions, with shortages in food, medicine and vaccinations. More Venezuelans are dying of preventable diseases and the country is seeing seven-digit inflation.
The report's authors mainly attributed the spike in cases to these living conditions, as well as a decline in mosquito-control activities known as vector control programs.
“The health systems in Venezuela are in a very fragile state. Supplies, medicines, health infrastructures are lacking,” Mario Grijalva, director of the Tropical Disease Institute at the University of Ohio and a co-author of the report, told NBC News. “So the logistics to treat these diseases are not working.”
Grijalva and other experts fear that the conditions in Venezuela could trigger a measles comeback, as well as other highly infectious diseases that could be prevented with vaccines.
Venezuela already experienced a measles outbreak in 2017, a year after the WHO declared the Americas to be the first region in the world to essentially eradicate measles.
As of August of last year, Venezuela has reported 3,545 confirmed cases of measles, including 62 deaths, according to the Pan American Health Organization.
Diseases spread in the region
Measles cases from other countries are still a main source of infection in places where the disease has largely been eliminated. Shortly after the measles outbreak in Venezuela, a dozen countries in the Americas — including Brazil, Colombia and Argentina — saw thousands of cases.
According to WHO, measles outbreaks can be particularly deadly in countries experiencing conflict since damages to health infrastructure, interrupted health services, irregular immunization proceedings and residential overcrowding greatly increase the risk of infection.
At a time when more than 3 million people have fled Venezuela, mainly to Colombia, Brazil and other parts of South America, Grijalva said “a call to action is the most important takeaway” from the report.
“The number of cases in these areas has gone up. Brazil and Colombia have astonishingly high numbers. But the issue is that in many of these countries, their public health capacity is on edge to the point that they can’t serve their own needs,” said Grijalva. “That’s why we’re raising the alarm.”
Among the actions experts like Grijalva say could help combat the health crisis are making sure that humanitarian assistance gets to Venezuela and that neighboring countries attend to the needs of the Venezuelan refugee population.