EL TUCUCO — The sweltering heat of the Venezuelan forest makes no difference to Jose Gregorio, who trembles with a cold chill. “I have pain everywhere, fever,” he stammers.
Gregorio has the classic symptoms of malaria, a disease eradicated years ago among his Yukpa indigenous people, but it’s back with a vengeance all across crisis-struck Venezuela.
“He had sore joints and then started vomiting, and it’s been four or five days since he’s eaten anything,” says his worried wife Marisol.
Their four-month-old baby babbles beside his father on the bed.
“The baby and I also had malaria,” says Marisol. “Before, that was not the case here, there was only chikungunya and dengue, malaria came back here last year.”
She doesn’t bat an eyelid at the mention of either of the other mosquito-borne viruses, whose spread has been fueled by the collapse of Venezuela’s health system.
“Here” is El Tucuco, a small village at the foot of the mountains that form the border with Colombia, a three-hour drive from Maracaibo in Venezuela’s western Zulia state.
With 3,700 people, El Tucuco is the Yukpas’ “capital” and malaria is rapidly making its presence felt here as in the rest of Venezuela — a country that could once boast of being the first to have eradicated the disease in 1961.
There are no official statistics on malaria’s reach into El Tucuco, nor on the number of deaths it causes.
But from his consulting room at the Catholic Mission, Dr Carlos Polanco is seeing a developing crisis.
“Out of 10 people who are tested for malaria in the village laboratory, four to five come out with a positive test. This is an alarming figure.”
Brother Nelson Sandoval, a Capuchin friar who presides over the mission, adds: “Before entering the order, I already knew this community and I had never seen a case of malaria. Today we are in the middle of a pandemic.”