Doctors Accuse Venezuelan Government of Ignoring Diphtheria Outbreak

A diphtheria outbreak may have already killed as many as 17 people in Venezuela, local doctors warned Thursday.

By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim

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The Venezuelan government says it's vaccinating thousands of people in Bolivar state against diphtheria. (pulzo.com)
The Venezuelan government says it's vaccinating thousands of people in Bolivar state against diphtheria. (pulzo.com)
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Puebla, Mexico, October 7, 2016 (venezuelanalysis.com) – A diphtheria outbreak may have already killed as many as 17 people in Venezuela, local doctors warned Thursday.

In a joint report, the Venezuelan Society of Public Health and the National Network of Epidemiology Defenders warned the disease was spreading across the southern state of Bolivar, and could soon pose a nationwide health risk.

“We're very worried because there could be an epidemic in the rest of the country," one of the reports authors, Doctor Ana Carvajal told Retuers.

The report continued by accusing the Venezuela health ministry of being aware of a potential diphtheria outbreak since April, but failed to warn communities of the resurgent disease.

“By June there were already confirmed cases,” the report said, before stating three deaths were attributed to diphtheria the following month. The authors of the report accused the health ministry of keeping the disease quiet for “political reasons”.

“This situation that’s causing uneasiness in our population aught to be addressed urgently by the ministry of health,” the report said.

Earlier this week, Bolivar’s socialist governor claimed there were no confirmed cases of the disease in his state, but said a vaccination program was already being rolled out.

"400,000 doses of vaccines have arrived for Bolivar to guarantee all citizens can be vaccinated," Governor Francisco Rangel tweeted.

Venezuela’s political opposition has responded to the new allegations by claiming the government’s health policies have failed.

“There’s reportedly 17 deaths now, and we have no way to treat [the disease],” said opposition legislator and head of the National Assembly’s health subcommittee, Jose Manuel Olivares.

For the past year, Venezuela has faced chronic shortages of medical supplies, including basic medicine. President Nicolas Maduro has blamed the scarcity on an economic war, and sabotage from rightwing groups seeking to topple his government.

Diphtheria itself has not been seen in Venezuela in decades. The potentially lethal disease was once a major health problem across the world, killing tens of thousands of people in the US alone in the early years of the 20th Century. The airborne disease often causes fever and a throat infection, and most of its victims are children.

In the 1920s, vaccination programs almost entirely eradicated the disease in much of the developed world, and until now Venezuela’s last case was reported in 1992.

The allegations of a diphtheria outbreak come just months after similar reports of rising cases of malaria and the zika virus spreading across the country.