Bolivian “Ebola-like” virus causing sparks fears of new epidemic

. Nov 23, 2020
virus bolivia Healthcare workers run health searches in selected neighborhoods. Photo: Radoslaw Czajkowski

At the beginning of the year, the coronavirus pandemic caught the world by surprise, forcing countries around the world to deal with an unknown and lethal disease that may cause permanent changes to our global way of life. Latin America has been hit particularly hard by Covid-19, with the region of South America declared the world’s pandemic epicenter in May. Six months on, the coronavirus has infected over 12 million Latin Americans and killed up to 412,000 people. 

The intensity and lethality of the coronavirus crisis showed that humanity is not as prepared for the consequences of viral pandemics as it once thought.

Now, experts are doubling their efforts toward identifying potentially spreadable diseases before epidemics and pandemics occur. And in Bolivia, scientists have identified a new enemy to human health.</p> <p>In the latest annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) on November 17, the organization declared it had found evidence of human transmission of the rat-borne Chapare virus, which was found in three health workers who were in contact with infected Bolivian patients in 2019. </p> <p>In a matter of days, two doctors and one patient died after developing symptoms such as hemorrhagic fever, bleeding from the nose and gums, and skin irritation. The virus — first discovered in 2003 — has been called &#8220;Bolivian Ebola&#8221; or &#8220;Bolivian dengue fever&#8221; due to its similarities to these two existing diseases.</p> <p>Experts from the ASTMH said that, beyond being highly lethal, the virus can be carried in human bodily fluids, which could cause a local outbreak. The virus was first identified in the northern Bolivian province of Chapare, hence its name.</p> <p>A poor and unequal region, Chapare is known as being one of the biggest centers for coca leaf production in Bolivia, and it was there that former President Evo Morales built his political career as a union leader. Experts say the particularities of Chapare put it at a high risk of a potential spread of this new virus.</p> <p>The nearby city of Cochabamba has been one of Bolivia&#8217;s hardest-hit areas during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the second-highest number of deaths according to government data. The risks of another viral epidemic in the region could be catastrophic.</p> <h2>No new pandemics on the horizon</h2> <p>There is no active spread of the Chapare virus in Bolivia just yet, though the country is on high alert due to last year&#8217;s deaths.</p> <p>The U.S. <a href="">Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)</a> stated that the key to preventing future viral pandemics is science. As human-to-human transmission is how viruses such as Covid-19 and Chapare spread, more extensive investigation can lead to more precise information, allowing health authorities to control such disease before they get out of hand.</p> <p>Despite recent alerts, Jamal Suleiman, an infectious disease specialist at the Emilio Ribas Institute in São Paulo, told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that the Chapare virus cannot be treated as a “discovery.”</p> <p>“The virus, which is an arenavirus, has been around for thousands and thousands of years, mostly carried by wild rodents. So while the human-to-human factor of transmission has now been revealed and must be analyzed carefully, experts say it is a ‘described’ disease and not a ‘discovered’ one,” explains Dr. Suleiman.&nbsp;</p> <p>News of the Chapare virus have led to fears of another pandemic with such close proximity to Covid-19 — and one with much more severe symptoms. But it would not be the first alert to raise such a fear, as several &#8220;new pandemic viruses&#8221; have cropped up this year, many of them consisting of false alarms.</p> <p>In July, the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan warned about a new “unknown pneumonia” that it claimed could cause an outbreak of respiratory disease “even more lethal than Covid-19.” Once panic set in, <a href="">Kazakhstan Health Minister Alexei Tsoi said that the information released by China was “incorrect,”</a> which was later endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO).&nbsp;</p> <p>The WHO endorsed Mr. Tsoi&#8217;s argument that the false alarm was simply a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has increased cases of pneumonia and similar respiratory ailments around the world.

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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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