Date: Sun, 7 Jul 2019 14:05:22 +0200
By Guillaume DECAMME

El Tucuco, Venezuela, July 7, 2019 (AFP) - The sweltering heat of the Venezuelan forest makes no difference to Jose Gregorio, who trembles with a cold chill. "I have pain everywhere, fever," he stammers.    Gregorio has the classic symptoms of malaria, a disease eradicated years ago among his Yukpa indigenous people, but it's back with a vengeance all across crisis-struck Venezuela.   "He had sore joints and then started vomiting, and it's been four or five days since he's eaten anything," says his worried wife Marisol.   Their four-month-old baby babbles beside his father on the bed.   "The baby and I also had malaria," says Marisol. "Before, that was not the case here, there was only chikungunya and dengue, malaria came back here last year."

She doesn't bat an eyelid at the mention of either of the other mosquito-borne viruses, whose spread has been fueled by the collapse of Venezuela's health system.   "Here" is El Tucuco, a small village at the foot of the mountains that form the border with Colombia, a three-hour drive from Maracaibo in Venezuela's western Zulia state.   With 3,700 people, El Tucuco is the Yukpas' "capital" and malaria is rapidly making its presence felt here as in the rest of Venezuela -- a country that could once boast of being the first to have eradicated the disease in 1961.

- 'Pandemic' -
There are no official statistics on malaria's reach into El Tucuco, nor on the number of deaths it causes.    But from his consulting room at the Catholic Mission, Dr Carlos Polanco is seeing a developing crisis.    "Out of 10 people who are tested for malaria in the village laboratory, four to five come out with a positive test. This is an alarming figure."   Brother Nelson Sandoval, a Capuchin friar who presides over the mission, adds: "Before entering the order, I already knew this community and I had never seen a case of malaria. Today we are in the middle of a pandemic."   El Tucuco is affected by Plasmodium vivax, the most geographically widespread malarial species. The more lethal Plasmodium falciparum strain is prevalent in the Amazonian regions of southeastern Venezuela.

According to Sandoval and Polanco, the reason for malaria's sudden virulence in El Tucuco is simple: once-regular fumigation missions by the Venezuelan government stopped.   "And as the population of mosquitos increased, cases exploded," said Polanco.   Added to this is the malnutrition that weakens resistance to the disease, a new phenomenon since the economic crisis took hold at the end of 2015.    "Before, it was possible to vary one's diet, but with inflation the Yukpa cannot afford it," instead making do with what they can grow, like cassava and plantain, according to Polanco.   Rosa, 67, knows all about malnutrition. Lying on the floor of her house, she is battling malaria for the third time. "The doctor weighed me yesterday -- 37 kilograms. I was 83 kilos before."

A report published in British medical journal The Lancet in February warned of an epidemic of malaria and dengue fever as a result of the continuing crisis in Venezuela.   Between 2016 and 2017 alone, the number of malaria cases in the nation jumped 70 per cent.    "The situation is catastrophic," said Dr Huniades Urbina, secretary of the national Academy of Medicine. In 2018, "there were 600,000 cases of malaria and we, the scientific organizations, estimate that in 2019 we could reach a million cases" -- one in every 30 people.   But these figures are only estimates, "because the government conceals the statistics."

-'Nobody answers us'-
The malaria explosion has gone hand in hand with the worsening economic crisis. According to Nicolas Maduro's government, inflation reached a staggering 130,000 percent in 2018 and GDP halved between 2013 and 2018.    In the oil-rich state of Zulia, service stations have been dry for more than a month. Electricity blackouts are commonplace and residents flee abroad in their thousands.   Despite a poster of late president Hugo Chavez at the entry to the clinic, there is little sign of government presence in El Tucuco. Dr Luisana Hernandez despairs of ever seeing any state help.   "Every day, everything is deteriorating a bit more," she says, exasperated. Refrigerators intended to keep vaccines cold do not work "because we have no gasoline to run the generator," and both the clinic's broken-down ambulances are gathering rust in the garden.   "We've knocked on every door. But nobody answers us," said Hernandez.

Without fuel to bring drugs from the city, without resources to prevent illnesses, eradicating malaria in an almost impossible task.   Brother Nelson does what he can, with help from the Catholic charity Caritas and the Pan American Health Organization. His mission distributes the antimalarial drugs chloroquine and primaquine to sick Yukpa people.   Maria Jose Romero, 22, was able to benefit from treatment. "Repeated seizures are due to the fact that many people cannot follow the treatment," for lack of drugs, she said.   Romero now lives across the border in Colombia, having fled Venezuela. She is visiting El Tucuco to see her family. Soon she will return to the other side of the mountain, on foot.   "It's three days' walk," she says.
Date: Wed 19 Jun 2019
Source: InSight crime [edited]
<https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/venezuela-disease-outbreak-criminal-migration-illegal-mines/>

Disease outbreaks show desperate Venezuelans have migrated to illegal gold mining areas for work.

Outbreaks of malaria and diphtheria in a region of Venezuela where these diseases are rare has revealed how armed groups are organizing a vast migration to illegal mines.

The outbreaks show that criminals operating in the state of Miranda found a way to make money amid the country's worsening crisis by moving into the illegal gold mines of Bolivar state, in the south of Venezuela.

In the middle of 2017, doctors witnessed an unusual, sustained, and inexplicable malaria outbreak in Valles del Tuy, a region in the state of Miranda located between the coast and the center of Venezuela where the mosquito-borne disease is seldom seen, Efecto Cocuyo reported.

The startling epidemic offered the 1st clue to the changing criminal dynamics in the region.

"Malaria was not a disease native to states in the center of the country, so this caught our attention. We started to ask patients about it to find out how they contracted it. The surprise came when one of the patients told me that he had caught it in the mining region in the state of Bolivar, where they went to work in gold mining," explained a doctor whose practice is in Charallave, the municipal seat in Cristobal Rojas municipality in Miranda state. The doctor asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Pressured by the economic situation and massive inflation, residents of the Valles del Tuy region began working during their vacations in the illegal mines in Bolivar, more than 500 kilometers [about 311 mi] away. The doctor said that they were recruited by 'pranes', or prison gang bosses, who had previously been the leaders of local 'megabandas' in Valles del Tuy.

The megabandas' grip on Valles del Tuy began in 2013, when various sites were converted into so-called peace zones, areas where security forces could not enter.

Later, when kidnappings and extortion stopped being profitable in the poor areas where they operated, members of the same megabandas migrated to the mining region in search of other sources of income, and to escape police and military raids.

InSight crime analysis
----------------------
Criminals are not immune to the effects of Venezuela's current economic, political, and social crisis.

Many criminals, primarily pranes and leaders of megabandas, have been forced to abandon their former strongholds and change the pattern of their criminal activities, according to investigations conducted by InSight Crime.

Criminals are trading robbery, petty theft, and kidnappings for drug trafficking and illegal mining. Additionally, they are migrating to states where these illicit economies are strongest: Sucre, Zulia, Tachira, and Bolivar. In the south of Venezuela, Bolivar has become the principal destination for the pranes of Valles del Tuy.

Ramon Teran Rico, alias "Monchi," for example, was the leader of one of the largest criminal organizations in the state of Miranda. Community representatives told InSight Crime that he fled to Bolivar's mines 2 years ago.

Monchi was the 1st crime boss to try his luck at the Orinoco Mining Arc, a transnational mining project created in 2016. He gradually moved his henchmen there from the Valles del Tuy. Sources in his circle of friends say that he even purchased his own dredge to extract gold.

Leaders of other criminal structures operating in the Valles del Tuy have also had to reinvent themselves in order to survive, and have moved into southern Venezuelan states where they operate comfortably.

Hundreds of residents of the towns in Valles del Tuy have migrated to the mining region. "All of the families here have at least one person that has gone to work in the mines," said a resident of Ocumare del Tuy in Miranda state, who reports seeing his neighbors' children and relatives head for the mines.

In November 2016, a case of diphtheria, an acute infectious disease [that most commonly affects the throat and the tonsils], was detected in the Sucuta sector of Ocumare del Tuy, alerting health authorities to the re-emergence of a disease rarely seen in the center of the country.

Follow-up with the patient found that he had contracted the infection in the Bolivar mines.

Health authorities developed prevention plans targeted at the neighborhoods where criminal groups operate. Investigations conducted by health authorities demonstrated that the men that go to work in the mines, as well sex workers or women who work in the kitchens there, carried these diseases back to the Valles del Tuy.

The public health problem shed light on the fact that an illegal gold mining fever had emerged -- an economic lifeline that is now strengthening organized crime.  [Byline: Venezuela Investigative Unit]
=======================
[Malaria has surged in Venezuela over the past 9 years (see ProMED reports below). Control measures have ceased to exist and drugs for treatment have become difficult to find. The association with illegal haphazard mining was reported from Bolivar state in 2012, and the present report underlines that such activities constitute high risk for malaria and other diseases.

The diphtheria outbreak that began in July 2016 remains ongoing. Through February 2019, Venezuela has seen a total of 2726 suspected cases (1612 confirmed), including 164 in 2019 to date (<http://outbreaknewstoday.com/diphtheria-update-venezuela-60872/>). - ProMED Mod.EP]

[Maps of Venezuela:
<https://www.mapsofworld.com/venezuela/venezuela-political-map.html>
and <http://healthmap.org/promed/p/41203>]
Date: Sat, 25 May 2019 03:37:38 +0200
By Andrea TOSTA

Caracas, May 25, 2019 (AFP) - If it weren't for the Center for Malaria Studies in Caracas, Francelis Pacheco would have been unable to get treatment for a disease she has contracted around 20 times.   Pacheco, 25, sells clothes and cigars in the claustrophobic tunnels of gold mines in southern Venezuela's Bolivar state, where a type of malaria-carrying mosquito is particularly active.   "If it weren't for (treatment) here, honestly I don't know what I would have done," Pacheco told AFP as she waited in the clinic for a new diagnosis, having spent several months in Bolivar state and neighboring Guyana, some 600 kilometres (370 miles) from her Caracas home.

The clinic, though, is not immune to Venezuela's economic crisis and is struggling to treat patients.   This is a country that lacks 85 percent of the medicines it needs, according to the pharmaceuticals industry.   With a tiny budget, the malaria clinic, which was opened in 1973, relies on donations.   Between 20 and 30 people a day from all over the country come get diagnosed and receive medication to alleviate the symptoms of a disease that can be fatal.

- 'Zero funding' -
Scientists who would later work for this clinic contributed in 1961 to helping Venezuela become the first country to eradicate malaria.   However, there was a resurgence seven years ago, worsening to become an epidemic in 2016, according to the Red de Epidemiologia NGO.   Today the clinic is in a sorry state: yellowed microscopes, a dishwasher stained by purple chemicals, refrigerators corroded by rust.   Over the years, fridges, freezers and air conditioners have stopped working and there's been no budget to  repair or replace them. Maintenance costs $1,000 a month.   Until 2007, the clinic received state funding for studies, but the money dwindled and then disappeared, Oscar Noya, the institution's director, told AFP.   "In Venezuela, scientific and investigative funding is zero!" he said.

The clinic has eight staffers who are paid salaries equivalent to $7 to $11 a month.   "We're at extreme poverty levels," said Noya, adding that "a full-time researcher should earn $4,000 to $5,000 a month."   Despite this, the center continues to propose malaria research projects to universities in France, Spain or Scotland, which allows them to secure funding.   According to the World Health Organization, Venezuela registered more than 400,000 malaria cases in 2017, making it one of the hardest-hit countries in the Americas.   Noya, though, believes the true extent of the epidemic is "close to two million" people affected.   The clinic treated 3,500 patients in 2018 alone, a figure that was "150 times greater than the past but with the same number of staff."

- Surviving on donations -
The government stopped publishing its epidemiology bulletins in 2016 when it acknowledged 240,000 cases.   Venezuela is blighted by the worst economic crisis in its recent history with basic necessities such as food and medicine in short supply.   Oil production, on which Venezuela is almost entirely dependent, has dropped alarmingly in the last decade while the International Monetary Fund predicts inflation will reach a staggering 10 million percent this year.

President Nicolas Maduro's government blames the country's woes on US sanctions, which the socialist leader claims have cost Venezuela $30 billion.   The malaria clinic survives on donations from NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders, Aid For Aids and the Rotary Club, as well as through international partnerships.   The money raised is spent on medicine, quick test kits, gloves and chlorine to clean the facilities.   In 2018, they also received anti-malaria medication from the Pan American Health Organization after two years without any, Noya said.   "Today, we're on the mat... but we're fighters and that's why we're still here, even though we've had many offers to leave the country" for work, he added.
Date: Sun, 10 Mar 2019 00:58:06 +0100

Caracas, March 9, 2019 (AFP) - Fifteen Venezuelans with advanced kidney disease have died after being unable to get dialysis during the country's extended power outage, an NGO reported Saturday.   "Between yesterday and today, there were 15 deaths for lack of dialysis," said Francisco Valencia, director of the Codevida health rights group.

"The situation of people with kidney failure is very difficult, critical, we are talking about 95 percent of dialysis units, which today likely hit 100 percent, are paralyzed, due to the power outage," Valencia added.   He warned that there are more than 10,200 dialysis-dependent people nationwide who were at risk by the blackout.   Venezuelans since Thursday afternoon have been in the grips of the worst blackout in the history of the oil-producing country.   President Nicolas Maduro government has charged that a US-led war on electric power supply was under way.

The United States backs the interim presidency of opposition leader Juan Guaido. He is now recognized as interim president for more than 50 countries.   Maduro told supporters Saturday that almost 70 percent of power had been restored but at midday there was another cyber "attack at one of the generators that was working perfectly and that disturbed and undid everything we had achieved."   Although Caracas and the states of Miranda and Vargas -- home to the country's international airport and main port -- had intermittent power, the western regions of Barinas, Tachira and Zulia remained without electricity.
Date: Tue, 29 Jan 2019 18:36:21 +0100

Washington, Jan 29, 2019 (AFP) - The United States on Tuesday urged its citizens to avoid all travel to crisis-torn Venezuela, citing risks of crime and arrest and the US embassy's limited ability to assist.   "Do not travel to Venezuela due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure and arbitrary arrest and detention of US citizens," the State Department said in an updated travel advisory.   "There are shortages of food, electricity, water, medicine and medical supplies throughout much of Venezuela," it said.   Venezuela becomes the only country in the Western Hemisphere to be slapped with the State Department's "Level 4" warning against all travel, joining war zones such as Syria and Yemen. Americans, however, are not legally forbidden from going.

The US State Department had earlier listed Venezuela as Level 3, meaning that Americans should reconsider visits.    While the new travel advisory concerns security of US citizens, it comes as the United States is pressing leftist President Nicolas Maduro to step down faced with Venezuela's economic collapse and mounting street protests.   The United States has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president.   Washington has refused Maduro's orders to close down the embassy but has pulled out non-emergency staff and families due to security risks.   The travel advisory said that the United States "has limited ability to provide emergency services" in Venezuela.
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