Venezuela Won't Talk To Colombia About Zika — And That's A Problem

Feb 23, 2016
Originally published on February 24, 2016 10:32 am

The Zika outbreak is aggravating an already tense relationship between Venezuela and Colombia. In Colombia, more than 37,000 people have fallen sick. Venezuela reports fewer than 5,000 cases — a number that Colombian officials find suspiciously low.

Juan Bitar heads the health department of a state in Colombia that shares a long border with Venezuela. "A lot of people who are sick with Zika in Venezuela are coming [to Colombia] for medical attention," he says.

A big part of the problem is that Venezuela is in the middle of an economic crisis. Right now, there's a shortage of everything over there.

"They don't have medication. Venezuela doesn't have proper hospital care," says Bitar.

"And we know that Venezuela is full of Zika right now."

You get a sense of the picture at a busy border crossing between the countries.

It's a bridge over a dry riverbed. We get there in the early evening — rush hour — and the traffic back and forth is impressive.

A guard on the Colombian side lets through a bus carrying school kids on their way home to Venezuela. There's a stream of people walking in the opposite direction into Colombia — old women wheeling suitcases, teenage guys with backpacks.

A young family walks by. Their 2-year-old girl plays hide-and-seek with us from under the canopy of her stroller.

Her mother, Johanna Villamizar, tells me that like many people around here she has dual citizenship.

"My mother is Colombian, my father is Venezuelan," she explains. The family owns an auto parts shop on the Venezuelan side. Villamizar's husband says he works there every day.

"I wake up, cross the border to get to work, then at the end of the day I cross back to come home."

Officially, Venezuela has closed this border to most traffic due to a political dispute. (Venezuela is trying to shift some of the blame for its economic woes onto Colombia. Colombia says that's ridiculous.)

But Venezuela is still letting hundreds of people pass through the bridge every day. Villamizar says for her, it's as if the border doesn't exist.

And the same seems to hold true for the Zika virus. Practically everyone in the Villamizar family has gotten it, on both sides of the border. She ticks off the list: "My grandmother, an aunt, a cousin."

So far, Villamizar has been able to avoid infection, but Zika's got her worried. She's pregnant and she has heard the reports about a possible link between this mosquito-borne virus and birth defects.

"I spend all my time spraying myself with repellent," she says, laughing.

Plenty of other people we meet say they don't bother.

Like Shirley Llanos, a physiotherapist wearing gray scrubs. "Because I'm pretty sure I've already had Zika!" she says, giggling a little sheepishly.

She came down with the classic symptoms in December — rash, fever, aches. Even so, she says, she kept working through most of it — commuting from her home in Venezuela to a hospital on the Colombian side. As she puts it, "A few days here, a few days there."

That's a pattern that worries Colombian officials like Bitar because the mosquitoes that transmit the virus between humans don't actually travel far. This is an epidemic that's being spread by sick people moving from one place to another.

Bitar says the biggest challenge is Venezuela's almost complete denial of the scale of its Zika problem. Ideally, he says, he should be coordinating closely with his Venezuelan counterparts right now — pooling data so they can focus mosquito-fighting efforts on border communities where the virus is spiking.

But relations have become so strained, he says, that he can't even pick up the phone to call them.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Zika outbreak is aggravating an already tense relationship between Venezuela and Colombia. In Colombia, more than 37,000 people have fallen sick. Venezuela reports fewer than 5,000 cases, a number that Colombian officials find suspicious. Meanwhile, Zika is flowing freely across the border. NPR's Narith Aizenman visited one crossing - a bridge over a dry riverbed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

NARITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: It's early evening, rush hour. A guard on the Colombian side lets through a bust carrying school kids on their way home to Venezuela. A stream of people is walking in the opposite direction into Colombia - old women wheeling suitcases, teenage guys in backpacks. A young family walks by. Their 2-year-old plays hide-and-seek with us from under the canopy of her stroller.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER)

AIZENMAN: Johanna Villamizar is the baby's mother.

JOHANNA VILLAMIZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: She says her mother is Colombian. Her father is Venezuelan. So the whole family has dual citizenship. Her husband, Carlo Martinez, tells me they own an auto parts shop on the Venezuelan side.

CARLO MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: So you wake up in the morning. You head over the border to work to your job in Venezuela, and then you come back every afternoon.

Officially, Venezuela has closed this border to most traffic due to a political dispute. Venezuela's economy is in shambles. They're trying to blame Colombia. Colombia says that's ridiculous. But Venezuela is still letting hundreds of people pass every day. Johanna Villamizar says for her, it's like the border doesn't exist. And the same seems to hold true for the Zika virus. Practically everyone in her family has gotten it on both sides. She ticks off the list.

VILLAMIZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "My grandmother and aunt, a cousin." So far, she's been able to avoid infection, but Zika's got her worried. She's pregnant, and she's heard the reports about a possible link between this mosquito-borne virus and birth defects.

VILLAMIZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "I spend all my time spraying myself with repellent," she says. But plenty of other people I meet say they don't bother, like Shirley Llanos, a physiotherapist wearing gray scrubs...

SHIRLEY LLANOS: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "...Because I'm pretty I've already had Zika," she says. She came down with the symptoms in December - rash, fever, aches. Even so, she says she kept on working through most of it, commuting from her home in Venezuela to a hospital on the Colombian side.

LLANOS: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: That's a pattern that worries Colombian officials. See; the mosquitoes that transmit the virus between humans don't actually travel far. This is an epidemic that's being spread by sick people moving from one place to another.

(CROSSTALK)

AIZENMAN: At a state capitol building on the Colombian side, the head of the state health department has been struggling to limit the Zika outbreak. Juan Bittar says his work is being hampered by almost complete denial on the Veneuzuelan side.

JUAN BITTAR: (Through interpreter) We know Venezuela is full of Zika right now, and a lot of people who are sick with Zika in Venezuela are coming to Columbia for medical attention.

AIZENMAN: A big part of the problem is that because of the economic crisis in Venezuela, there's a shortage of everything over there...

BITTAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: ...Including medication, hospital beds, doctors, nurses. Bittar says that ideally, he should be coordinating closely with his Venezuelan counterparts, pooling data so they can focus mosquito-fighting efforts on border communities where the virus is spiking. But relations have gotten so complicated, he says, I can't even pick up the phone to call them. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News, Cucuta, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.