Venezuela

Healthcare professionals combat myths in Venezuela disaster zone

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Written by Stephanie Kriner, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org
Concerns about disease have resurfaced along with the bodies of mudslide victims that recently washed up on Venezuela's Caribbean beaches. But authorities insist that the carcasses, swept into the sea during the floods that ravaged Venezuela's northern coastline, pose little threat to human health. "It's shocking, it's painful that there are bodies floating in the sea, but this does not per se represent an epidemic risk," Health Minister Gilberto Rodriguez said.

Rather than worrying about potential risks from decomposing bodies, local hospitals and medical crews are concerned about treating the numerous cases of diarrhea, respiratory problems and skin infections, such as scabies and impetigo, that they encounter every day.

A mudslide survivor in a Red Cross hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, shows wounds he suffered during the recent disaster. Even the now-putrid bodies buried in rubble pose no serious health risk unless they pollute the drinking water, experts said.

"Decomposing bodies do not pose a real danger," said Alvaro Requena, a doctor with the Venezuelan Red Cross (VRC). "The real danger is where people are crowded into shelters or where they don't have access to clean water."

Despite popular belief, epidemics rarely occur in the aftermath of a disaster, according to Jean-Luc Poncelet, a doctor with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). An epidemic is an outbreak of a disease that affects a much greater number of people than is usual for the locality or that spreads to regions where it is ordinarily not present. A PAHO team monitoring the situation in Venezuela recently discovered two cases of cholera, but that's not enough to cause a scare, Poncelet added.

More common are cases of gastro-intestinal illness (possibly caused by drinking dirty floodwater), respiratory problems (from breathing air that's contaminated with dust particles), or skin infections (from wading in murky floodwaters or being exposed to unsanitary conditions), said Juan Carlos Leoni, a Venezuela Red Cross (VRC) medical intern treating disaster patients. Mudslide survivors fleeing the disaster zone have also arrived at the tiny Caracas hospital where Leoni works with swollen and infected feet after walking barefoot for days over sharp debris and through grimy floodwaters.

Despite assurances that an epidemic is unlikely, authorities still take extra precautions to limit illnesses following a disaster. Mass vaccinations are not planned in Venezuela, but special brigades have fanned out across Vargas, the worst-hit area of the Dec. 15 mudslides, to kill disease-carrying rats. There also are plans to spray insecticides to kill mosquitoes or other insects that carry disease. "We're going to declare a national alert because the possibilities of epidemic outbreaks are more present than ever," Rodriguez said.

Despite the massive death toll, authorities say that decomposing bodies are not likely to spark an epidemic in Venezuela.

The lack of potable water coupled with unsanitary conditions that normally follow a major disaster pose the greatest health concerns for doctors. Thousands of people in Venezuela are still without drinking water, according to a PAHO report. The Red Cross and other donors are quickly supplying clean water to the disaster area, but it has still not reached everyone. "We're on our own here," one survivor, Jaime Salazar, told the Associated Press. To conserve precious water, he and other survivors drank the milk of coconuts scattered among the debris.

Health officials also are monitoring shelters, where cramped living conditions could lead to the rapid spread of infections. In one case, Leoni noticed that several children at one shelter were scratching - a clue that scabies had begun to spread throughout the tight quarters.

By monitoring such cases and educating people about how to avoid maladies, relief and government workers in Venezuela have limited more serious outbreaks, they say. Authorities in Venezuela have dropped pamphlets from helicopters urging people to drink only bottled water or water that has been boiled for 20 minutes.

Sick and injured disaster victims have overcrowded Venezuela hospitals. Red Cross medical teams, made up of doctors, nurses and counselors, are going out into the worst hit areas - not only to treat the injured and sick, but also to monitor for disease outbreaks and to pass out disease prevention information.
But delivering the right message can be difficult when misinformed media outlets create confusion about the possibility of health threats, Poncelet said. "We have to work more on the prevention side and not alarm people about something that is not occurring."

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All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013.

The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross.

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DisasterRelief
DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement. American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.