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Venezuela's Collapse Puts Strain On Latin American Health Care


The economic and political crisis in Venezuela has not just destroyed the health care system inside that country. It's having effects throughout Latin America. Disease outbreaks that began in Venezuela are popping up in other countries now. Venezuelan refugees with HIV and other serious health problems are overwhelming clinics in neighboring nations. Thousands of Venezuelan doctors and nurses are seeking new jobs as far away as Chile and Argentina. NPR's Jason Beaubien has more.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In 2016, the World Health Organization triumphantly declared the Americas was the first region on the globe to eradicate measles. One year later, a measles outbreak erupted in Venezuela.

ROBERT LINKINS: Consequently, since June of 2017, we've seen upwards of 6,500 cases.

BEAUBIEN: That's Robert Linkins. He's the top person working on containment of measles globally at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among those 6,500 confirmed measles cases, 76 people died. And the outbreak got even worse after it spilled out of Venezuela.

LINKINS: We've got over 10,000 cases in Brazil and 12 deaths. It's also been now seen in Colombia and Ecuador, in Argentina and Chile and Peru.

BEAUBIEN: Researchers have been able to analyze the virus in this continentwide outbreak and trace it back to Venezuela. Venezuela is in the midst of a political and economic crisis that's seen severe shortages of food and medicine, hyperinflation and two men who now both claim to be the legitimate president. The country has also seen its once robust health care system collapse. The downward spiral began in the waning years of Hugo Chavez's presidency in the mid-2000s.

Sitting on the largest known oil reserves in the world, Chavez's administration spent freely and took an antagonistic approach towards much of the rest of the world, especially the U.S. When oil prices crashed, the country found itself isolated and broke. Basic services like national vaccination campaigns started falling apart in the late 2000s. Linkins at the CDC says each year that children weren't vaccinated against measles in Venezuela, the pool of people the virus could potentially infect grew, and the country became fertile ground for the disease.

LINKINS: It was not a surprise to many of us. It was inevitable that a case would be introduced because there's measles all over the world.

BEAUBIEN: In addition to measles, malaria cases have exploded in Venezuela and fueled outbreaks in other parts of the region.

ALFONSO RODRIGUEZ-MORALES: Venezuela right now is the biggest problem in the region in terms of malaria because malaria is significantly increasing year after year.

BEAUBIEN: Alfonso Rodriguez-Morales is a professor of infectious diseases at the Universidad Tecnologica de Pereira in Colombia. He grew up in Venezuela and went to medical school there before emigrating to Colombia eight years ago. Venezuela officially eradicated malaria in 1961. Rodriguez-Morales says when he was a kid, there were very good mosquito control programs. Then, slowly, malaria cases started to return. And over the last couple of years, it exploded. And when people get malaria now in Venezuela, basic drugs to treat it aren't available. The U.N.'s refugee agency says more than 3 million Venezuelans have left the country because of the ongoing crisis. Most have ended up in Colombia, Brazil and other parts of South America.

In just the first eight months of 2018, officials in Peru say that 550,000 Venezuelans arrived in their country. Seven hundred and twenty of them were immediately absorbed into the public HIV treatment program, according to the Peruvian Ministry of Health. This put a huge strain on Peru's HIV drug delivery system, particularly in the capital Lima. And it's not just people in need of health care who are fleeing Venezuela. In December, when Chile gave its national exam to certify doctors to work in its public health system, just over 5,000 applicants sat down to take the test. Almost half of them were physicians from Venezuela. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.