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Venezuela takes on Zika amid shortages, information blackout

Caracas: This is what the Zika outbreak looks like in Venezuela, a country whose medical system has teetered for months on the brink of collapse.

There’s a lack of bug spray to prevent mosquito bites, scant contraceptives to avert pregnancies, little medicine to treat Zika-linked maladies. There has been no effective public health campaign to inform the public about the disease and nobody really knows how many infections there have been.

“It’s just terrible what we are living,” said Carla Natera, a 50-year-old local government worker who contracted Zika and spent three days searching pharmacies for an ointment to calm the angry rash that broke out on her face and body.

William Barrientos, a doctor and opposition lawmaker, says the socialist government is not equipped to confront a health crisis in a country where food and medicine shortages are acute, the economy is a shambles and a political crisis deepens by the day.

“There is no education and information campaign among the population here,” and no tracking of the mosquitoes that carry the virus, he said.

The scale of what Venezuela is going through is unclear. Officials alerted the World Health Organization to the first case of Zika here in November but did not release statistics or reach out to the public until two months later.

The Health Ministry is now reporting more than 5,000 suspected Zika cases and three related deaths.

But a network of independent physicians allied with the opposition the Venezuelan Society of Public Health says that’s likely a dramatic underestimate. It says a polling of local health officials found a rise in acute fevers that could correspond to 400,000 Zika cases, and the outbreak will likely reach its peak around the end of March.

Neighboring Colombia, by contrast, has reported more than 30,000 cases.

It’s been a year since the government published up-to-date epidemiological data and reaching the Health Ministry for information is frustrating. The main line for hits “Zika situation room” was out of order today and the person answering another number for the room hung up twice on a reporter.

To compensate for the lack of official figures, doctors have been turning to informal surveys, social media and even Google analytics to try to get a handle on the scope of the outbreak.

The virus has been linked to a spike in Guillain-Barre, a rare disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing temporary paralysis that can be fatal. Health officials say the country has seen 255 cases of the Guillain-Barre syndrome since the Zika outbreak began a much higher incidence than reported in other countries grappling with the virus.