Hemorrhagic Fever Breaks Out in Flood-Ravaged Bolivia

LA PAZ, Bolivia, March 15, 2007 (ENS) - Deadly hemorrhagic fever has broken out in Bolivia, which continues to be severely affected by extreme El Nino weather conditions. Heavy rains beginning in December 2006 and continuing have caused major rivers to overflow, leaving 51 people dead and six people missing. Over 400,000 people have been affected.

The Mamuja community in Beni Province, 22 kilometers from Magdalena, has been quarantined because of an outbreak of hemorrhagic fever, according to Dr. Juan Alberto Nogales, local Health Vice-minister.

Dr. Nogales told "Los Tiempos" newspaper that two weeks ago, three people, a veterinary student and two others, found a mouse nest, and for unknown reasons they killed the mice with a knife.

Soon afterwards, these three people used the same knife, without properly cleaning it, to cut lemons from a tree, and they drank the juice from those lemons. The health officer said that two of these people died because of this febrile illness, and the surviving third one lived to tell the story.

As a consequence, the community has been quarantined, the entry of persons is tightly controlled, the area has been surrounded with 3,000 mouse traps, and a rodenticide poison is being used to kill mice, which are known to be the agents of transmission of this fatal disease.


The Calomys callosus mouse spreads Bolivian hemmorhagic fever. (Photo © Ricardo Sawaya courtesy Sao Paulo Department of Ecology)
The disease, caused by the Machupo virus, is spread by the Calomys callosus mouse, particularly by the rodent's urine.

The incubation period for Bolivian hemorrhagic fever in humans is 14 days on average, and the case mortality rates reported are between five to 30 percent.

This is the third quarantine period declared in Bolivia in the past 50 years due to hemorrhagic fever. San Joaquin community, near Magdalena, was quarantined in 1958, while in 1971, Viedma Hospital in Cochabamba was closed because of the occurrence of this disease.

Elsewhere in the country, there is ongoing high risk for epidemic outbreaks because of floods caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon. Health authorities have intensified actions to control dengue fever, yellow fever, malaria, and hantaviruses, as well as hemorrhagic fever.

The Bolivian Ministry of Health and Sports with the support of the Armed Forces and disaster experts from Cuba and Venezuela, has started a campaign of medical assistance to prevent infectious diseases.

Minister of Health Nila Heredia said the greatest worries, besides hemorrhagic fever, are the risk of increasing malaria, tetanus carried by dead cattle floating in water, and the Aedes Aegypti mosquito that transmits dengue fever.


Bolivian Health Minister Nila Heredia (Photo courtesy Government of Bolivia)
The country remains under a National State of Emergency declared on January 18.

Floods have so far caused the most destruction. Most of the municipalities and towns in several departments in Beni and provinces in Cochabamba are completely flooded. Flooding has resulted in landslides and obstructed roads, isolating some rural communities that can now only be reached by boat.

There is expected to be further flooding within the next few days. The National Meteorological Service of Bolivia predicts that moderate to heavy rains will continue through the coming week.

Droughts and freezes in most of the provinces in the department of Oruro, Potosi and the north of La Paz have resulted in 9,000 families losing their harvests.

The number of people affected is increasing as rivers continue to overflow in Bolivia’s worst floods in decades. The Beni regional government estimates that floodwaters will not recede for two months.

In Beni, 40 percent of flood victims in the city of Trinidad are children living with their parents in provisional shelters set up in public schools or inhabiting tents on roadsides in outlying areas and rural communities.


Flood-affected Bolivians are living in donated tents beside roadways. (Photo courtesy UNICEF)
"The high percentage of girls and boys that are suffering from the floods in the city of Trinidad means that we need to concentrate our emergency response efforts on maintaining health, ensuring protection and promoting children’s return to classes," said UNICEF Bolivia Representative Gordon Jonathan Lewis during his visit to Trinidad earlier this month.

Several United Nations agencies have rushed logistical assistance and humanitarian support to Bolivia. The UN World Health Organization and Pan American Health Organization are assisting the government in providing public health solutions and medicines, as the floods overlap with outbreaks of dengue fever, yellow fever and malaria in the country.

Despite contributions made by countries such as China and nongovernmental organizations such as World Vision and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Bolivia still needs tents, mosquito nets and medicine kits.

U.S. government assistance in response to the severe flooding in Bolivia has now reached more than $1 million.