The government of Venezuela has confirmed three deaths directly related to the Zika pandemic sweeping Latin America, while medical experts throughout the country report an alarming rise in the number of cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disease Zika is suspected of triggering in certain patients.
“We have 319 confirmed cases [of Zika], of which 68 have gotten complicated and, unfortunately, we have had three Zika-related deaths nationally,” socialist President Nicolás Maduro announced Thursday. He noted that, given how time-consuming the effort of confirming the presence of Zika in a patient’s bloodstream is, the government has only been able to confirm those 319 cases, but doctors are monitoring 5,221 suspected cases of Zika nationwide as of February 8.
The number is about 500 more cases than the last official estimate out of the South American country. On January 28, Minister of Health Luisana Melo announced that the country’s doctors were monitoring 4,700 suspected cases of Zika. The government had not released new figures since, until this week.
In a related health crisis, doctors are reporting an escalating number of cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disease in which the body’s immune system begins attacking its nerves. The result is crippling muscular pain and, in many cases, paralysis and death. Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional reports that doctors have documented 21 deaths related to Guillain-Barré. Doctors in both Brazil–the country that has become host to most of the Zika cases in this outbreak–and Colombia have also documented an increase in the number of Guillain-Barré cases and have begun to suspect that the Zika virus can trigger this immune system reaction when infecting patients.
El Nacional does not attribute the Guillain-Barré deaths to Zika specifically, however, but to Venezuela’s extreme shortage of pharmaceutical products, which prompted the head of the nation’s Pharmaceutical Federation to declare a “humanitarian emergency” in January. Doctors treat Guillain-Barré primarily with two alternative treatments: injections of immunoglobulin or albumin, products derived from healthy blood. “The lack of immunoglobulin and albumin has taken the lives of 21 people in 6 weeks,” El Nacional writes. Three have died in Caracas; the third died when the syndrome paralyzed the muscles surrounding the lungs, making it impossible to breathe.
“Most of these patients had symptoms similar to Zika in the days prior to having Guillain-Barré,” the newspaper notes.
El Universal, another Venezuela newspaper, reports that Guillain-Barré has become a problem outside the capital, as well. In Mérida state, local authorities are tracking 158 suspected cases of Zika, six with Guillain-Barré. They have insisted, however, “The Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya situation is under control in our state.” The Aedes aegypti mosquito, of which Venezuela has a significant population, spreads all three diseases.
At least one NGO is suggesting that the Venezuelan government numbers are significantly smaller than the actual number of Guillain-Barré cases. José Félix Oletta, a former Venezuelan health minister who works with the Let’s Defend Epidemiology Network, claims the group has evidence that there may be more than 3,000 Guillain-Barré patients in Venezuela. “We already have a weakened health care system, which tends to make these problems spread more rapidly. Add to that the lack of information and it’s a perfect storm,” Oletta said in January.
In addition to those inside Venezuela, the government of Colombia has alleged that the Venezuelan socialist government has “no systematic reporting of the data” regarding Zika cases, which is a “serious problem,” according to Colombian Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria. Colombia has recorded over 30,000 cases of Zika, compared to Venezuela’s suspected 5,000, a number indicating that Venezuela is underreporting its cases, given that the countries share a border.