Covid-19 not the only disease plaguing Latin America

. Nov 10, 2020
covid-19 latin america health disease Loayza National Hospital in Lima, Peru. Photo: David Huamani Bedoya/Shutterstock

By the beginning of November, the Covid-19 pandemic had already infected more than 11.5 million people in Latin America, with deaths exceeding 410,000 and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warning of a potential second wave of contamination. But the virus has not been the only health threat during the crisis, with diphtheria resurfacing in Peru, dengue fever terrorizing Paraguay, and Haiti still battling to beat cholera.

In November, Peru was put on nationwide alert after detecting the country’s first cases of diphtheria in 20 years, resulting in two deaths so far.

</p> <p>The first victim was a five-year-old child in the poor district of La Victoria, in the capital city of Lima, which prompted the government to start door-to-door campaigns and launch a vaccination campaign to immunize 80,000 people in the neighborhood.</p> <p>The outbreak adds insult to the injury of Peru&#8217;s coronavirus epidemic. With 1,055 deaths for every million inhabitants, Peru has <a href="">one of the worst Covid-19 mortality rates in the world</a>, surpassed only by Belgium and the microstate of San Marino, which has a population of less than 35,000.</p> <p>This dramatic scenario is made even worse by the economic make-up of Peru, with its high rates of informal employment. Approximately 70 percent of Peruvians have to leave home to work.</p> <p>Dengue fever — a perennial headache for the region — is an even more serious problem. PAHO data says that over 1.6 million cases of dengue fever were recorded in the Americas between January and May this year, along with 7,279 cases of chikungunya and 7,452 instances of <a href="">zika</a>, all three of which are transmitted by the <em>Aedes aegypti</em> mosquito. As summer in the Southern Hemisphere approaches — when dengue fever infections peak — concerns are high throughout the southern portion of the Americas.&nbsp;</p> <p>In Paraguay, where the Covid-19 outbreak was <a href="">largely well controlled</a>, the dengue fever season at the beginning of 2019 was particularly difficult to eradicate. Indeed, Paraguay&#8217;s Health Ministry only declared the end of the epidemic in March, after 117,104 cases and 53 deaths. Worryingly, the epicenter of the disease was in the capital of Asunción and its surrounding districts, as opposed to usual trends of affecting rural, less developed areas. Concerns for summer are high.</p> <p>The most dramatic of these non-Covid-19 health issues during the pandemic is found in Haiti, with the country&#8217;s long and fruitless struggle against cholera. The poorest state in the Western Hemisphere has been plagued by the disease since 2004 and the coup d&#8217;etat overthrowing President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. </p> <p>As the <a href="">United Nations peacekeeping mission</a> arrived to stabilize tensions in the country, Nepali soldiers brought the disease to Haiti, killing at least 10,000 people in the 16 years that followed.</p> <p>In order for the World Health Organization to declare the country cholera-free, Haiti must go three consecutive years without a new case, which only became harder during the coronavirus pandemic. The country&#8217;s fragile health structure and <a href="">opaque data reporting</a> have made tackling the Covid-19 crisis even more challenging, while experts suggest that the real numbers of cholera cases around Haiti may be vastly underestimated.</p> <p>&#8220;While it may not be accurate to say Covid-19 is overshadowing other diseases, what we can say is that vaccination coverage within the population has been reduced,&#8221; says Jamal Suleiman, an infectious disease specialist at the Emilio Ribas Institute in São Paulo. </p> <p>&#8220;Polio is an <a href="">example</a>, which is considered to be eradicated in Brazil. Nowadays, vaccination coverage against the disease is extremely insufficient. And we are talking about a free and readily available vaccination, which is not yet the case for the coronavirus.” </p> <h2>Long-term solutions for Latin America</h2> <p>After nine months of the coronavirus pandemic, the problems facing Latin America have been laid bare for the world to see. With a 9.1-percent GDP drop expected for the region as a whole this year, countries will have to reallocate their finances in order to keep their health systems standing in 2021.&nbsp;</p> <p>Remedial solutions have been employed, but largely to combat the financial woes of the crisis. <a href="">Chile has turned to its pension funds</a> in order to keep people from bankruptcy; Brazil has paid out monthly coronavirus aid, and <a href="">other nations</a> have turned to the International Monetary Fund for loans. However, experts warn that more needs to be done on the health front, and simpler — and cheaper — measures could help the region avoid future medical disasters.</p> <p>“Dengue fever is a good example of how individual actions can contribute to a collective benefit. To avoid the formation of mosquito-breeding sites, people need to keep spaces clean. And this is even more important now, at a time when surveillance centers and labs are focused on  Covid-19,” explains Dr. Suleiman.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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