Chikungunya virus in Venezuela tests post-Chavez health sector

As of mid-July, there more than 40 cases of Chikungunya have been reported in Venezuela. Since the virus appeared in the Caribbean in late 2013, cases are now…
Chikungunya virus in Venezuela tests post-Chavez health sector

Residents of the Delmas section of Port-au-Prince wash in one of the trash-clogged, stagnant canals that criss-cross the Haitian capital and are a breeding ground for the newly arrived Chikungunya mosquito-borne virus. Even though Caribbean nations have been hit hard by the Chikungunya outbreak, countries like Venezuela are also reporting cases. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

As of mid-July, there more than 40 cases of Chikungunya have been reported in Venezuela.

Since the virus appeared in the Caribbean in late 2013, cases are now being reported throughout the region, including Central and South American nations. Although the infection is not lethal, its arrival to the mainland is problematic. At a time when Venezuela’s health sector is suffering from the country’s economic crisis and the long-term effects of Hugo Chavez’s presidency, chikungunya will sternly test the country’s health agencies.

SEE ALSO: Chikungunya, a threat to the Dominican Republic

Chikungunya expands in Venezuela

On June 26, the Venezuelan Ministry of Health confirmed the first two cases of chikungunya in the country. Two patients, a 55-year-old woman and her 25-year-old son, residents of Maracay (north-central Venezuela) were originally treated for dengue. However, further tests confirmed that they were suffering from chikungunya.

The virus has continued to spread and, by July 15, there were 45 confirmed cases. The ages of the infected vary, from 4-year-old toddlers to 55-year-old adults. It seems that chikungunya is now present in Caracas, the capital, as well as states such as Bolivar, Amazonas, Zulia, and Portuguesa.

Estimations of the number of people infected by chikungunya vary, as new cases are constantly being reported. With the chance that the virus is mistaken as dengue, these figures are likely underestimated.

According to an April PAHO press release, there were more than 15,000 suspected cases in the Caribbean by the end of March. On the other hand, a June 19 article by the Spanish news agency EFE explains that, there were 4,800 confirmed cases and 165 thousand suspected cases of chikungunya in more than 20 countries at the time of reporting.

Basic facts on Chikungunya

According to Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Aedes Aegypti or the Aedes Albopictus, two types of mosquitoes, transmit chikungunya. These insects live and breed along the Atlantic coasts of the Western Hemisphere, from the U.S. down to Argentina.

A lab in Dallas tests mosquitoes for the presence of the Chikungunya virus.

FILE – Mosquitos are sorted in a Dallas lab to determine if they carry viruses such as Chikungunya or Dengue. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Chikungunya possesses remarkable similarities to dengue, and therefore patients are often mistaken as suffering from one instead of the other. PAHO explains that about three to seven days after a person is bitten by an infected mosquito, high fever, headache, and joint and muscle pain strikes the individual.

As it stands, there is a no specific treatment or vaccine to cure chikungunya.

Tests for Venezuela’s health sector

The extent of the virus’s reach in Venezuela remains to be seen, although Peru and the United States have already reported cases.

Fast methods of transportation dramatically increase chikungunya’s spread since individuals may contract the virus in one country, with symptoms only displaying in another (as it takes days for the disease to manifest itself). Case in point, Venezuela’s first cases of chikungunya originated in the Dominican Republic (DR). Likewise, the Peruvian media reports that chikungunya arrived in the Andean nation via travelers that came from the DR.

As for Venezuela, chikungunya will pose a major challenge to its health sector. Venezuelan Minister of Health Francisco Armadaand other senior officials regularly provide updates on the situation, praising the country’s health agencies. For example, when six new cases of chikungunya were reported in late June, Jesus Toro, director of Environmental Health in the Ministry of Health, praised the work of public and private health agencies. These institutions have been reporting new cases as they arise throughout the country.

Nevertheless, Venezuela’s economic struggles have had a deleterious effect on its health sector. A March 20 article in the Venezuelan daily “El Universal” explains that medicine for patients who suffer from hemophilia, a blood disorder, is now scarce. The daily also states that Venezuela imports up to 60% of the medicine it utilizes.

Understaffed and under-equipped hospitals means that sick Venezuelans will have to wait more time to know whether they have chikungunya (and not dengue).

Venezuela’s health sector was dramatically affected by the lengthy rule of the late president, Hugo Chavez. In a controversial decision, President Chavez allowed Cuban doctors to operate in the South American country in order to provide aid to impoverished communities. The virus will now test how well Venezuela’s health sector, can perform to stop the disease from spreading further.

At the time of writing, Venezuela’s situation is not dire, medically speaking. Chikungunya has spread in recent weeks, but it has yet to reach alarming levels, as it is in some Caribbean islands. On Caracas’ side, the virus is not lethal, but Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro must avoid mass hysteria among an already tense population and prevent chikungunya from becoming an epidemic.

How Chavez’s health sector reforms and the recent economic troubles will affect Venezuela’s ability to deal with a tricky disease will be determined in the coming week.

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