The Public Health Crisis in Venezuela Is Spreading to Its Neighbors

To be honest, I was not surprised to read that dozens and dozens of families in Venezuela are making the risky trip to Colombia in order to get healthcare and other services. Among those services are vaccinations, and there doesn’t seem to be a hesitation when it comes to receiving them, certainly not the kind of hesitation that we see here in the United States in places like Washington State. In Washington, a hot spot of vaccine hesitancy has evolved into a relatively big measles outbreak. As of January 30, 2019, there have been 38 confirmed and 13 suspect cases, almost all of them not immunized against measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

I was not surprised because, as a father, I would do anything in my power to take my child away from danger and toward safety. That’s what many families in Venezuela are doing, and they’re not taking their children just to the safety of a neighboring country. They’re also taking their children into the safety of immunization against vaccine-preventable diseases.

The situation in Venezuela is very complex. Venezuela is a major oil producer. As such, most of the jobs tied themselves to the oil industry while not enough people worked in more sustainable industries like agriculture or manufacturing. Moreover, citizens enjoyed relatively low taxes because the income for the country came from oil exports and not internal revenue on productivity. As soon as the price of oil took a hit, their economy suffered throughout. Without a tax base to make up for the losses of a price-per-barrel of oil that went from over $100 in 2014 to under $30 in 2016, government couldn’t employ anyone, services were cut back, and a spiral into what is now a de facto civil war (albeit without much bloodshed) continues.

Those services cut included healthcare and public health. Without healthcare, preventive care, a living wage, etc., millions of people have started to leave the country, most into neighboring Colombia or Brazil. That migration and lack of immunization coverage recently triggered a measles outbreak in Brazil. In order to prevent similar situations, Colombia has begun a campaign to immunize any and all Venezuelans seeking refuge, and the refugees seem more than happy to receive the immunizations.

In the NBC news report, a father is said to have taken his daughter to the Colombian border for her immunizations:

“Concerned Venezuelan father Ender Molina told NBC News his daughter Guadalupe Molina, now 10 months old, arrived in Colombia without any of her childhood immunizations.

“She had to get eight shots in just one day,” he says.”

The same report goes on to state than an official with the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) pointed out that the Venezuelan health authority “hasn’t been fulfilling its obligation to provide the logistics or organization to carry out regular, consistent vaccination programs.”

All in all, it seems like the entire situation is a biosecurity disaster waiting to happen. Beyond the United States’ response to the political situation, we are going to have to deal with the ramifications of an entire country without healthcare right here in our hemisphere and within traveling distance to the United States. In the long run, it is probably better to do as Colombia is doing and prevent rather than react to an outbreak of something like measles.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen