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World News

Poverty-linked diseases come back in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Poverty-related diseases such as Chagas, rabies and yellow fever are making a comeback in Argentina because prevention campaigns cut during a deep economic crisis seven years ago have still not recovered.

Deforestation and higher temperatures attributed to global warming are also contributing to the resurgence or reappearance of some diseases, experts said.

Argentina has sharply reduced poverty since the 2001-2002 crisis, and the economy is in its sixth year of strong growth, but health workers say they do not have the resources for prevention in the poor northern region of the country.

“Recently we’re seeing the emergence or reemergence of some diseases we thought were at least under control,” said Sonia Tarragona at Mundo Sano, a scientific research firm.

Chagas disease, caused by a tropical parasite, is endemic to Argentina and is commonly caused by an insect that lives in homes made of flimsy materials in rural parts of the north.

“For good prevention, you have to eradicate the insects, but there are zones where we only have five people for pest control and a lot of houses spread out from each other,” said Hugo Mujica, a cardiologist who works with Chagas patients in Santiago del Estero, one of Argentina’s most affected areas.

Chronic Chagas can damage the heart and other organs.

Chagas prevention programs collapsed in 2001 during the crisis, and that helped the comeback of the vinchuca, the local name for the insect that causes the disease.

“With deteriorating living conditions..., the vinchucas move and return to areas they had been gone from,” said the health ministry’s Epidemiology Director Juan Bossio.

The government this year increased its budget for fighting Chagas disease and in April launched a program to try to eradicate it within three years.

CHANGING APPROACHES

Rabies, transmitted by bites from infected bats, dogs or other animals, had been eradicated in Argentina since 1994. But in July an eight-year-old boy died of rabies.

“Argentina is totally changing its approach to rabies because the situation changed... The appearance of a disease that hadn’t been here sounded an alarm,” Bossio said.

Mosquito-borne illnesses, which have made a comeback around the world, possibly due to climate change or the banning of some pesticides, are also resurgent in Argentina.

After 42 years without yellow fever, eight cases were reported this year, with one fatality. Malaria cases have been on the rise since 2002.

The government has doubled its budget for preventing tuberculosis next year because even though cases of the lung disease are not rising, the rate of decline has slowed.

Many of these illnesses are on the rise in northern Argentina, the poorest area of the country.

Government statistics show poverty fell to 18 percent in the first half of the year after rising to 55 percent in 2002 when the economy contracted dramatically. But some private economists believe the government’s under-reporting of inflation is exaggerating the drop in poverty.

Soy and other crops, as well as new communities, are expanding into previously forested areas, which means people are exposed to insects left behind when trees are cut down.

“When people cut back the forest they are exposed to diseases they didn’t even know existed,” Tarragona said.

In 2006 Argentina saw its first reported case of visceral leishmaniasis, the most serious form of the parasite disease, and health experts say its appearance is a direct result of settlements in previously forested areas.

In the last two years, four cases of visceral leishmaniasis were reported in Santiago del Estero province and 21 in Misiones province. Four people died from the disease.

Translation by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Patrick Markey

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