Surge in HIV affects indigenous communities in Venezuela
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Surge in HIV affects indigenous communities in Venezuela

A surge in HIV rates is devastating indigenous Warao communities who inhabit Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta region in the northeast of the county.

The first cases of HIV were registered in 2007, and since then the virus has spread to dozens of Warao communities.

According to a recent investigative report by Venezuelan journalist Minerva Vitti, nine years ago the Venezuelan Red Cross identified 15 cases of HIV in the Warao communities. Today the virus has spread to 26 communities.

Some 20,000 Warao inhabit the Orinoco River delta, practicing subsistence farming, fishing and hunting.

“Many died, almost everyone.”

Speaking to Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, Jaime, a Warao from one of the affected communities, said: “In my community, many died, almost everyone. A cousin, a brother-in-law two nephews and a neighbor and her ​​son. It is everything, fever, diarrhea, dizziness, severe fatigue.”

A medical study of eight Warao communities conducted in 2013 found that 9.55 percent of community members had HIV-1 antibodies present in their blood, about 18 times higher than the national level, which is 0.53 percent.

The same study found that the virus was more prevalent in men than women, with HIV-1 antibodies identified in 15.6 percent of men and 2.6 percent of women.

Particularly concerning for communities and health officials is the fact that this is an especially aggressive strain of the virus.  Vitti has reported that while people infected with HIV can be asymptomatic for up to ten years, Warao community members currently living with the virus are experiencing AIDS symptoms in less than five years.

According to a study conducted by the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, knowledge of HIV infection within the communities is poor and there is “low acceptance of prevention and treatment”.

One of the authors, Flor Pujol, told Fox News Latino that “the sad thing is, when we do manage to get them the retrovirals, they take them for one or two months and, once they start feeling better, they stop taking the medication” and that “they don’t understand that HIV is something they will have to deal with their whole lives.”

Inadequate aid

It is uncertain exactly how the virus reached the Warao, but the authors of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research study have speculated that the viral sub-type present in the area may “be related to a trade route of Asian ships that travel through the Orinoco Delta to transport metals from upstream mining industries.”

Pujol also told Fox Latino News  poverty and inadequate access to medical care are fueling the epidemic.

Another article published by local journalist Vitti, revealed the dire state of medical services in the area and the impact upon Warao communities, which are not only dealing with HIV, but other diseases such as hepatitis and tuberculosis.

Vitti wrote that the “lack of effective public policies concerning healthcare put these peoples and their ancestral knowledge at permanent risk of disappearance”.

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