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World

Government's Secrecy Contributes To Zika Outbreak In Venezuela, Critics Say

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's consider a few facts about Venezuela. There's widespread evidence that the government there has mismanaged the economy. Even the middle class has run short of food and toilet paper. The socialist government is also notorious for its secrecy. This very government is now the one that is supposed to coordinate Venezuela's response to the Zika virus. Reporter John Otis found it's hard to know what is happening inside Venezuela's public health system. He starts by following a doctor into a Venezuelan hospital.

JOSE MANUEL OLIVARES: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Jose Manuel Olivares is a doctor and an opposition congressman. He's visiting public hospitals, like this one in the Atlantic port of La Guaira.

The ER overflows with patients. Beds occupy the hallways. Nurses tell Olivares about a shortage of drugs, syringes and rubber gloves. But complaining too loudly is risky. Hospital staffers are government employees, and loyalty to the ruling Socialist party is expected.

JAIME CONTRERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: So says neurosurgeon Jaime Contreras, who tracks down Olivares in a hospital hallway. He's worked here for seven years, but was fired just hours before we arrived. His sin - Contreras refused to operate on a patient because there was no clean water to wash his hands. Before leaving, he vents his frustration on a hospital manager.

CONTRERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The hospital visit will help Olivares prepare a report for Congress on Venezuela's deteriorating public health system. The idea is to break through what he describes as an information blackout by President Nicolas Maduro's administration. It's not just health. The government often refuses to divulge data on everything from skyrocketing inflation to plummeting food production. Venezuela's deepening economic crisis prompted opposition leaders last month to call for nationwide protests to force Maduro's resignation. Olivares says releasing grim statistics would further erode Maduro's support and reflect badly on the socialist revolution ushered in by the late Hugo Chavez 17 years ago.

OLIVARES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It's government policy to suppress information," says Olivares. "But," he adds, "they need to understand that politics can't come before the problems of the people - especially health problems."

Besides Zika, Venezuela's dealing with outbreaks of dengue, chikungunya and malaria. But the health ministry has published only sporadically what's supposed to be a weekly bulletin on infectious diseases. The government is so secretive that it has yet to tell Venezuelans what kind of cancer killed Chavez three years ago. The health ministry did not respond to NPR's request for comment. When it does release statistics, critics say they're incomplete. The most recent numbers on Zika came in January from Health Minister Luisana Melo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUISANA MELO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She reported 4,700 suspected cases. But there's been a spike in fevers unrelated to the usual culprits like dengue. That's why a group of independent doctors claims that a more realistic figure would be half a million Zika cases. One of these doctors is former Health Minister Jose Oletta.

JOSE OLETTA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says, "If you don't tell people about health threats, they won't recognize the risks, and are more likely to get sick."

Meanwhile, Congressman Olivares continues his fact-finding missions. But he's often been stymied by soldiers who guard state-run medical facilities and by government-organized mobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting in Spanish).

OTIS: That was the case when he and other opposition lawmakers tried to visit a hospital in the western city of Maracaibo. An angry crowd shouted insults and blocked the entrance. The congressman never managed to get inside. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, La Guaira, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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