Zika Virus Challenges Latin America’s Collapsing Public Health Systems

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The mosquito-borne Zika virus has shed light on serious shortcomings in the public health systems of the affected countries, most of which are located in Latin America.

On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the explosive spread of the virus in the Americas is an “extraordinary event” that constitutes an international public health emergency.

The disease has been linked to the neurological disorder known as microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, and Guillain-Barre, a rare syndrome that causes the immune system to damage nerve cells, leading to muscle weakness and even paralysis.

Besides bites from the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the disease could also be transmitted through sexual contact, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed Tuesday. There is no preventing drug or vaccine to combat the virus.

An op-ed published by Colombia’s El Tiempo points out that, “worryingly,” failures in the public health systems in affected countries “occur in the most basic components,” such as “prevention, vector containment, education, community participation, self-care and leadership from local health authorities.”

Colombia is the second most-affected country, with an estimated 22,000 confirmed cases.

Amid the Zika virus outbreak, Venezuela’s public health system totally collapsed, according to news reports.

The country’s lawmaking body declared a “humanitarian crisis” due to a chronic shortage of medical supplies and drugs, reports Argentina’s La Nacion, shortly before Zika grew into a major international story.

“Government debt to pharmaceutical companies and laboratories has reached an estimated $3 billion, making it difficult to import drugs. The same goes for medical supplies and equipment,” notes the report.

The socialist government of Nicolás Maduro had initially refused to make public the number of confirmed Zika cases in Venezuela, points out La Nacion.

However, Luisana Melo, Venezuela’s health minister, finally revealed last Thursday that there were 4,700 suspected cases of patients showing Zika-linked symptoms, noting that her department was operating under a “state of alert,” reports the country’s El Universal newspaper.

In El Salvador, the public health system is not faring much better compared to that of Venezuela.

El Salvador’s system has nearly collapsed, according to an editorial published by an online news outlet named after the Central American country.

The opinion piece points out that the Zika virus “could not have come at a worse time,” adding that “public health services have almost collapsed because of clumsy management.”

Salvadorian public health officials are ineffective and inexperienced, constantly clashing with doctors and residents, argues the op-ed, noting that the government’s debt crisis is the root problem.

El Salvador’s public health sector is also suffering from a shortage of drugs and professional health officials, adds the article. Like in Venezuela, the president of El Salvador professes to be an adherent of Hugo Chávez’s 21st Century Socialism.

In Rio de Janeiro, the second-largest city in Brazil, home to more confirmed Zika cases than anywhere else in the world, a union made up of health workers dealing with the virus outbreak on the ground are threatening to go on strike over poor working conditions, a testament to problems within the country’s public health system.

“The union is demanding better working conditions, as well as uniforms, sunscreen and bug repellent for city workers going door-to-door in hopes of wiping out the mosquito,” reports The Associated Press (AP).

“Sandro Cezar is the secretary general at the city’s SINTSAUDE union,” adds the report. “He said Monday that the union’s 7,000 workers will go on stage if Brazil’s health ministry doesn’t meet their demands by Thursday. Cezar also warns that more than 220,000 other health workers could later join them in a nationwide stoppage.”

A Zika outbreak was identified in northeast Brazil in May 2015, but the health minister at the time, Arthur Chioro, dismissed the discovery, telling reporters that “Zika virus doesn’t worry us” and calling it a “benign disease,” reports The New York Times (NYT).

“After that dismissive response, public health experts say that the political upheaval in Brazil — in which [Brazilian President Dilma] Rousseff is fighting impeachment proceedings — weakened efforts to respond to Zika,” adds the report.

The CDC has identified 28 countries and territories, including Puerto Rico, as locations with active Zika virus transmission. Most of those countries and territories are in Latin America and the Caribbean.