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Infectious Disease Outbreak in Colombia

Sylvia Matthews Burwell
A mural of a girl wearing a mask is on a wall in Colombia with a Colombian guard in a mask next to it

Infectious diseases know no borders. In this age of global hyper-connectedness, a disease outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere. With just a sneeze, a hug or a plane ride, a deadly germ can travel from West Africa to North Texas before we even realize the threat exists.”

— Liz Schrayer, president, U.S. Global Leadership Coalition

2.1 The Issue

The number of infectious disease outbreaks has been rising for several decades. As populations grow and expand into previously forested areas, more people are contracting zoonotic diseases—infections that can be passed from animals to humans. Given increasing trade and travel to and within low-income countries, outbreaks of infectious diseases such as Ebola and Zika viruses in remote rural villages are more likely to reach crowded cities with limited health systems, which are the ideal incubators for diseases. Since 2000, a series of epidemics, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), H1N1, Zika, Ebola, and most recently coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), has taken a significant toll, prompting experts to call for increased investment in global health security to help countries prevent, detect, and respond to epidemic and potentially pandemic diseases.  

The coordination of international responses to outbreaks is still largely ad hoc, which limits their effectiveness. After an outbreak of Ebola killed eleven thousand and infected twenty-seven thousand in West Africa in 2014, international agencies and countries around the world invested in building the capacity to detect and respond to dangerous disease events globally, especially in low-income and weak states. Those investments have helped nations make measurable improvements in their preparedness for dangerous disease events, but significant gaps and risks remain. Without a robust, predictable, and well-coordinated international response, an emerging and lethal infectious disease in a country without the capacity to respond to and control that outbreak—a fragile or failed state, one mired in civil war, or one subject to a significant influx of refugees—could have devastating consequences for that country and its neighbors. 

Decision Point

UN Security Council Meeting

Weeks ago, news reports began to trickle out of northern Colombia, near the border with Venezuela, about a disease spreading quickly among farm workers. Dozens of patients have visited rural clinics seeking treatment for intense headaches, muscle pain, and vomiting. Several of the initial patients suffered convulsions, had seizures, and ultimately died. One week ago, physicians in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, reported a cluster of cases in the city. Officials fear potentially hundreds more cases of the mystery illness, possibly in neighboring countries as well.  

 

The Colombian government has reported the potential outbreak of the mysterious illness to the World Health Organization (WHO) and has begun working with its regional office, the Pan American Health Organization, to investigate. WHO officials believe the disease is most likely caused by the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV), which is endemic to Central and South America. VEEV is spread primarily by mosquitoes and historically has a low mortality rate. WHO scientists believe the current outbreak could involve an airborne form of VEEV, which would spread more easily and be much deadlier. No specific treatments have been established. Therefore, the fate of sufferers will likely depend on the quality of supportive care, monitoring, and treatment of complications. No vaccine for VEEV is commercially available, though several candidates have been developed and one has been approved for use in horses. 

 

Outbreaks of infectious disease can be particularly debilitating in politically or economically unstable areas. Although Colombia’s health-care system has significantly improved in recent years, it is under increasing strain. The reported outbreak is in a region that borders Venezuela, which is in the midst of an economic, political, and humanitarian crisis that has forced thousands to flee the country, many to Colombia. As refugees continue to arrive, areas along the border are growing more crowded, increasing the risk of VEEV spreading and straining Colombian health officials’ capacity to monitor and contain the outbreak. As international concern about VEEV grows, Brazil has announced it will restrict trade and travel with Colombia and has moved to secure its borders, and several other countries are considering doing the same. As fears grow that this outbreak has the potential to become a widespread epidemic or even a global pandemic if it cannot be contained, the UN Security Council is meeting to discuss whether a coordinated international response is needed and what type of action, such as the enforcement of trade and travel recommendations, the outbreak necessitates.  

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