The long fight against malaria

Venezuela rose only after malaria declined. In the 1920s, the black gold of oil that had been discovered a decade earlier set off a bonanza. But a vast malaria hot zone, then two-thirds of Venezuela, stood between the country and its riches.

The deadly scenes were immortalised in Dead Homes, a 1955 Venezuelan novel about the malaria epidemics and migration to the oilfields.

Former health minister Arnoldo Gabaldon took action to solve the problem, and it made him a national hero. Teams built irrigation ditches to drain pools of standing water, distributed quinine and constructed cinder block homes in rural areas so that mosquitoes had fewer places to breed.

But it was the use of insecticides - initially DDT, then other substances - that began to turn the tide.

By 1949, malaria deaths had fallen drastically - from 300 for every 100,000 people to nine.

By 1999, when Mr Hugo Chavez assumed the presidency and began to carry out his socialist vision, the regimented system of Dr Gabaldon had long faded, though malaria still appeared to be confined to a few rural areas.

In 2014 and last year, as oil prices collapsed and the government scrambled for money, there were prolonged shortages of chloroquine and primaquine, two drugs used for Plasmodium vivax, the most prevalent malaria parasite in the Americas.

By this year, there were shortages of nearly all anti-malaria drugs, most notably a cocktail for the deadly Plasmodium falciparum strain costing just several dollars for a full round of treatment.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'The long fight against malaria'. Print Edition | Subscribe