Suspected diphtheria cases up in crisis-stricken Venezuela, data suggests

CARACAS (Reuters) - Diphtheria, a serious bacterial infection that is fatal in 5 to 10 percent of cases, appears to still be spreading in Venezuela amid unsanitary living conditions and shortages of basic medicines, rarely available data suggested this week.

Venezuela notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of around 123 cases of suspected diphtheria between January and mid-June, bringing the total number of suspected cases in the past year to 447, according to a Cuban health ministry web page which reported the figures.

The unpopular leftist government of Nicolas Maduro has largely remained silent on the deadly diphtheria outbreak, and the Health Ministry stopped regularly publishing data around two years ago as Venezuela’s health sector crumbled.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry and PAHO, the regional arm of the WHO, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the data. Venezuela’s Health Ministry website was down.

“The lack of access to official information of general interest violates constitutional rights and arbitrarily restricts useful information that would let the population learn about health risks and how to protect itself,” the Public Health Society, a group of Venezuelan doctors critical of Venezuela’s public health policies, said in a statement about the diphtheria figures on Saturday.

Jose Oletta, a former Venezuela health minister and member of the society, added that it was “absurd” that Cuba was publishing the Venezuelan figures but said it had happened before.

The return of diphtheria, which Venezuela had gotten under control in the 1990s, shows how vulnerable the country is to health risks amid a crippling economic crisis that has led to a scarcity of antibiotics and vaccines.

At least several dozen people have died of diphtheria, said Dr. Ana Carvajal, who is also a member of the health group. However, she cautioned that it was difficult to make a proper estimate given the lack of access to official data and a climate of fear in hospitals. Venezuela also lacks supplies for diagnosing diseases.

Reuters documented the case of a 9-year-old girl, Eliannys Vivas, who died of diphtheria earlier this year after being misdiagnosed with asthma, in part because there were no instruments to examine her throat and because she was shuttled around several run-down hospitals.

A health practitioner in Anzoategui state, one of the worst hit by the diphtheria outbreak, said the number Venezuela reports to the WHO is probably too low.

“We can’t report cases because immediately authorities tell you that can’t be made public,” the source said on Saturday, asking to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals.

He added that there were not enough face masks for health workers, meaning hospital staff could also be at risk.

The Cuban web page said Venezuela had bought an additional 3.5 million vaccinations to control diphtheria.

Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana; Editing by Jonathan Oatis