Gender and Development

The Polio Scare Was Only A Sliver of Venezuela’s Deepening Health Crisis

Earlier this year, the Pan-American Health Organization reported a possible case of polio in Venezuela, which was ultimately ruled out. Even without the polio scare, however, Venezuela is facing a deepening public health crisis, explains Adriana Melchor.

BY: ADRIANA MELCHOR

Early in June, reports broke out that the first case of polio in South America since 1991 had been found in Venezuela. According to the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) a 34-month-old baby exhibited symptoms of acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) on April 29, 2018. This was initially thought to be associated with vaccine-derived poliovirus, as a Sabin type 3 polio virus had been found in the child’s stool samples. However, PAHO released a statement on June 15 that polio had been officially ruled out after further investigation of this AFP case.

Venezuelans have hardly any reason to be cheerful about this news. With or without polio, Venezuela’s public health crisis is deepening at a terrifying speed and threatens to spread to other nations in the region.

To understand the origins of the public health crisis, we must first point to the government’s continuing denial of the existence of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. President Nicolas Maduro refuses to accept international humanitarian aid and continues to blame his international adversaries for the country’s economic woes.

Declaring a humanitarian emergency in Venezuela is important because it is necessary for humanitarian aid agencies to intervene. However, doing so would threaten the legitimacy and livelihoods of those in power. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that President Maduro has taken several measures to consolidate power, such as barring opposition leaders from standing in elections and briefly dissolving the National Assembly.

The crisis is exacerbated by the government’s de facto ban on publishing official figures on public health. For nearly two years, the Health Ministry has not published any epidemiological report or statistics. Unexpectedly, in April 2017, the Ministry broke its silence and released data highlighting the true depth of public health failures in Venezuela.

According to the data, infant mortality rose by 30% and maternal mortality by 65%. Cases of diphtheria (previously eradicated) and malaria also jumped significantly since the last figures were published. These isolated figures only represent a fraction of the overall crisis.

Following this publication, then health minister Antonieta Caporale was promptly fired and replaced by Luis López. At this point, the government data blackout resumed.

Despite the blackout, what is certain is that diseases threaten to spread across South America as Venezuelans continue to cross the borders of neighboring nations in search for a better life. According to the World Health Organization, Venezuelan migrants fleeing the country are carrying malaria into Brazil and other parts of Latin America.

Given the continuous influx of Venezuelan migrants in South America and beyond, the country’s public health crisis is quickly becoming a matter of international concern. As such, it merits an international reaction.

Several volunteer-run organisations within and outside of Venezuela have emerged to assist Venezuelan hospitals in addressing medical supply shortages. These organisations have become crucial in the day-to-day alleviation of the suffering experienced by patients. But humanitarian efforts can be scaled up beyond small charities covertly operating inside the country.  

The World Economic Forum suggests that United Nations agencies should work with Venezuela’s neighbouring nations to help them provide support for migrating Venezuelans. Such a solution is necessary in the short-term as Venezuelans increasingly abandon the idea of remaining in their home country. Other international agencies working on aid provisions for Venezuelan migrants, such as the Red Cross, can increase their efforts.

International support for non-profit organisations, which specifically work in the Venezuelan public health arena, either through private donations, government grants or the direct provision of medical supplies, is also important at this time.

Of course, scaling up humanitarian efforts would be best achieved by allowing international aid to filter through to hospitals and public health bodies in Venezuela. So long as the government continues to deny the depth of its country’s woes, the international community must continue to exert pressure on the government to declare a humanitarian crisis.

Part of this involves consolidating Latin America’s response to what is happening in Venezuela. Historically, the continent has been deeply divided on this issue, mostly for ideological reasons. The recent election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico ─ whose rival, Enrique Peña Nieto, strongly condemned the Venezuelan government ─ could threaten the prospect of unanimity. The Organization of American States (OAS), however, has remained resolute in its calls for the Venezuelan government to implement measures necessary to prevent the worsening of the humanitarian crisis. Latin American countries should follow suit.

In sum, the short-term alleviation of medical shortages and other public health failures must go hand-in-hand with a political will outside and within Venezuela to contain the country’s human suffering. The international community will be incentivised to react, if not on moral grounds then out of fear of the many spillover effects of the Venezuelan situation.


Adriana holds a Bachelor’s in Social Policy and Government from the London School of Economics and has worked in financial services for a number of years. At University, her studies focused on international welfare state analysis, international development and economics. She is fluent in Spanish and proficient in French.

Photo Credit: Steemit

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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