Malaria cases shoot up in Venezuela, epidemic grips region where miners venture into jungle

By Ian James, AP
Friday, June 4, 2010

Malaria epidemic hits southern Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela — Malaria cases have doubled in Venezuela so far this year as health officials confront an epidemic in a vast southern region where wildcat gold miners are often infected in remote jungle camps.

Health Ministry statistics published this week show there have been 21,601 malaria cases nationwide so far this year, up from 10,758 during the same period last year.

A vast majority of the patients — 19,750 — were diagnosed in southern Bolivar state, where government officials say there is an epidemic. The statistics, which are updated weekly and circulated among some health officials, cover the period running from the start of the year through May 22.

Miners in search of gold and diamonds have long caught the disease by venturing into forests where malaria-carrying mosquitoes live. Their strip-mines destroy patches of forest, leaving behind muddy pools and water contaminated with the mercury they use to separate gold from rock.

Public health officials attribute the rise in malaria cases in part to a government-led operation this year in which soldiers have evicted thousands of miners from their illegal strip-mines.

That has led to a movement of displaced miners to other towns, and they have carried the disease with them and helped it spread into areas that didn’t used to have much malaria, said Dr. Ana Gineth Morales, who heads the Bolivar state Public Health Institute.

“We expected it. It hasn’t taken us by surprise,” Morales said in a telephone interview Friday, saying her agency had been fully prepared.

“We’ve been efficient in diagnosing, detecting,” she said, adding that officials have largely managed to avoid deaths this year — except for a single man in Bolivar, an elderly miner who died in January from malaria and complications from other health problems. Last year, she said, one Brazilian woman died of malaria in the state.

Morales said there has been an epidemic in parts of Bolivar since February. She expressed confidence that cases should eventually decline sharply as the government continues to root out illegal miners through its “Plan Caura” operation.

But some critics say the malaria situation appears to be out of control.

“We expect malaria cases will keep increasing,” said Dr. Angel Granados, of the Bolivar state Medical Association.

He said there are various factors contributing to the rise, including recent rains and movement of miners — but also “failures in control and prevention” measures by state health officials.

Public health teams haven’t been reaching many remote areas including indigenous communities to detect and treat cases, Granados said.

Bolivar state has long been the epicenter for malaria in Venezuela, and the disease has been on the rise for the past few years. The country is on track this year to surpass the 2009 nationwide total of 35,725 cases — which also was an increase from 31,719 cases in 2008, according to Health Ministry figures.

Granados said there have recently been problems trying to supply medications to so many patients.

“It worries all of us in the hospitals,” he said.

Granados said one Yekuana Indian community earlier this year reported six deaths — including three children and three adults — that came after they suffered high fevers and appeared to be due to malaria. But he said state health officials ruled out malaria saying the deaths were due to other causes and did not include them in their tally.

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