Photo: AP retrieved

If you thought Venezuela only exported oil barrels, think again. Besides crude, we have recently turned into the biggest exporter of infectious diseases in the continent. You’ve probably heard of malaria, diphtheria and measles, but now vibriosis joins the vigorous international market of Venezuelan diseases. As of July 12, the United States’ Center for Disease Control (CDC) registered 12 cases of severe diarrhea and stomach ache from three different states: Maryland, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

The common factor between them? Consumption of crab meat imported from Venezuela.

Photo: WMAR

The CDC and the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) isolated a bacteria called Vibrio parahaemolyticus in samples retrieved from all the patients. This bacteria inhabits brackish and saltwater along coast lines throughout the world, and most cases are registered in patients that consumed contaminated seafood, especially oysters and crabs, although open wounds can also get infected. V. parahaemolyticus causes a mild gastroenteritis with diarrhea, vomit and cramps known as vibriosis but, unlike cholera (a deadly disease caused by another bacteria from the same family), the condition self-limits after some three days, and minimum treatment is required. In the current outbreak, only four people have been hospitalized and no deaths have been reported.

However, this is a problem for Zulia, where the crab industry is a big deal that dates back to 1969 and employs around 9000 people.  Practically all crab production in the region is exported to the United States and according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), back in 2003, crabs generated a modest revenue of about 7 million dollars per year, with the regional government announcing a-never-put-in-practice plan to boost exports to some 90 million dollars back in 2016.

This is a problem for Zulia, where the crab industry is a big deal that dates back to 1969 and employs around 9000 people.

Two years later, crabs have sparked a small epidemiologic emergency in the United States.

Since it was first isolated in 1953 in Japan, V. parahaemolyticus has been detected all around the world, including Venezuela.The number of bacteria in the water is directly related to its temperature, which may explain its presence in the warm waters of Lake Maracaibo, where most of crabeater activity takes place. Crab meat is particularly susceptible to contamination due to its high humidity and chemical composition, so it’s not surprising that several studies have demonstrated a great number of pathogenic bacteria in commercial samples retrieved from Lake Maracaibo.

Although the presence of V. parahaemolyticus in the meat isn’t directly caused by the inadequate handling of the crabs, this outbreak highlights a longstanding flaw within the Venezuelan food industry, now worsened by the economic crisis: the lack of proper hygiene controls. For the past two years, handmade products and imported food lacking any sanitary control have been filling the gap left in the Venezuelan market by traditional companies kicked out of the country. Cases of poisoning with homegrown sour cassava in 2017, or the CLAP’s milk scandal, and the oral Chagas disease outbreak in Tachira earlier this year, are all examples of current lack of controls. The contaminated crabs suggest that not even the few exported goods we still produce are spared from this reality.

This outbreak highlights a longstanding flaw within the Venezuelan food industry, now worsened by the economic crisis.

Given the vibrio’s world-wide presence, FAO recommends that all countries establish protocols to isolate this specific bacteria in meat for sale. Cases are regularly reported in highly developed countries like Japan, New Zealand and the United States, so just imagine how bad (and ignored) the situation could be in a place like Venezuela.

The main reason why most Venezuelans haven’t heard about this disease might be because laboratories no longer have the resources to diagnose it.

One of the few private labs in Caracas where microbiological tests are still regularly run on food confirmed us that they currently lack the reagents needed to identify V. parahaemolyticus, which are allegedly only available in the state-run National Institute of Hygiene.

Although we had no answer from other laboratories, in a country where not even blood transfusions can be properly tested, it’s safe to assume that crab meat is not being given any different treatment. At least that’s what the Trinidad and Tobago Agriculture Ministry seem to think, after it prohibited the imports of Venezuelan crabs until new advice, and recommended Trinitarians to avoid buying any illegally imported seafood from Venezuela.

Most pathogens present in seafood can be killed by cooking the meat at temperatures over 60°C, but cross-contamination of other food in contact with the meat can still cause the disease, which is why the CDC advised consumers to discard any crab meat from, or suspected to come from Venezuela, while urging restaurants and retailers to do the same.

The main reason why most Venezuelans haven’t heard about this disease might be because laboratories no longer have the resources to diagnose it.

They also warned that contaminated food tastes and smells like normal.

The worst part of this whole scandal is that no one in Venezuela would’ve ever known about the risk of consuming these crabs, hadn’t the CDC published its alert. Venezuelans have no way to know if the food they still manage to find is actually suitable for human consumption, until it affects someone abroad. No one seems to care about it.

So far, the Venezuelan government has remained silent. Besides a brief cynic report on state-owned portal, La Iguana TV, the issue has been completely ignored… Like all the other problems the country faces.

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