Zika in Venezuela: Containing an Outbreak the Government Refuses to Acknowledge

The spread of the Zika virus in Venezuela isn’t the only pressing issue that the South American country is currently facing, but it might be the hardest to get a solid grasp of.

The country’s current economic downturn has led to a variety of struggles, and the fact that doctors and medicine are becoming harder and harder to come by at a time when this new disease is striking has created a truly toxic situation.

According to The New York Times, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) and neighboring Brazil declaring the mosquito-borne illness an international public health emergency, Venezuela’s socialist government refuses to release information or statistics on the outbreak. They won’t even acknowledgment of the extent of the possible epidemic to the public at-large in Venezuela.

“The access to information in Venezuela is very complicated because the government thinks every journalist wants to do propaganda against it,” said Manu Quintero, a Caracas-based freelance photographer who specializes in documenting social and environmental issues. “So we must find our own way to get access.”

In the U.S., about 129.8 million people go to the emergency room annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, it’s hard to come up with any concrete data like that in Venezuela.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anyone paying attention that the Venezuelan government refuses to formally acknowledge or release data on the disease. The country’s government has had a long-standing tradition of not releasing similar negative statistics, either, such as those pertaining to inflation and crime rates.

Zika, which first started being officially reported last year, is estimated to have infected about 1.5 million people in Brazil and at least 43,000 people in Colombia. The Venezuelan government claims to have seen just 5,000 cases of the illness; meanwhile, the Venezuelan Society of Public Health estimates the real number his closer to 400,000.

While doing investigative journalism on the Zika virus in Venezuela, Quintero was able to peak behind the curtain in one hospital. One patient he ran into with Guillain-Barré syndrome had his mother by his bedside to administer X-rays and sterile needles, as the hospital was not equipped to handle treatment on their own. Another local woman told NPR in a similar story that doctors and nurses are regularly paid less than $50 a day in the struggling nation.