CARACAS—The government thugs stormed Dr. Oscar Noya's offices late at night when nobody was around. They knocked down a wall, stole some fresh scientific records and even yanked out the electric cables. The whole malaria department at the Tropical Medicine Institute here was plunged into darkness.
It wasn’t the first time something like this has happened. The government of Nicolás Maduro doesn’t like the institute’s scientific findings, which show a huge increase in malaria cases, a deadly metric of this country’s disarray. The Maduro regime’s thugs, known as colectivos, set out to intimidate anyone and anything seen as a threat. But this is a particularly striking example of autocracy out to demean and defeat science, no matter how many lives are at stake.
The day after the malaria department was pillaged, I met with Dr. Noya as he was surveying the damage. He didn't appear to be bothered by the mob's violent act. He had bigger concerns: the blood samples inside the big refrigerators would be useless if kept in warm temperatures for too long.
Noya belongs to a group of legendary doctors and researchers who once managed to defeat malaria here. Later, when the disease had a resurgence, Noya kept it in check. Now, with the breakdown of services in Venezuela, malaria and other tropical scourges are back, wreaking havoc all around the country.
According to the latest data gathered by the Tropical Medicine Institute the mosquito-transmitted disease has increased by 209 percent in the last four years, with half a million people now infected. Venezuela also is suffering from epidemics of measles and diphtheria.
The 68-year-old Noya, a parasitologist who got his PhD from the Tropical Medicine Department at Louisiana State University, is on the front line in the ongoing, frantic battle against malaria, even as his work is severely underfunded and his personal safety is threatened not only by the regime's rulers and their henchmen but by the tropical diseases he is fighting.
Still fit and energetic, Noya often spends weeks and months deep inside the forest where he hunts down monkeys and snakes for medical research, wades through wild rivers to get samples of possible bacteria outbreaks, and travels to the gold and diamond mines where malaria runs rampant.
Over the last few years, these mines have lured countless desperate Venezuelans as well as mafia groups and guerrilla organizations from Colombia that fight for control. Noya estimates that hundreds of people exposed to these mines, which are full of mosquitos, have died of the disease this year.
“We have been thrown back to the 1930s,” Noya says, alluding to the current catastrophic conditions amid the fears that malaria along with yellow fever and cholera might get out of control again.
In the 1930s, malaria devastated every part of Venezuela except the country's Caribbean islands. The disease killed 10,000 people a year and put countless numbers of the afflicted in danger of starvation: struggling with high fevers and chills, they were bed-ridden and unable to work for weeks on end. All this was happening in a country with no tropical medicine research facilities, no prevention programs.
Now the health care structure that Noya helped to build and fortify in the last four decades is falling apart. And he saw it coming. At the end of 1999, he wrote a letter to Gilberto Rodríguez Ochoa, back then a minister of health in the Hugo Chávez cabinet. Noya enclosed up-to-date data, pointing to the possible danger of malaria's outbreak again in Venezuela.
His warning fell on deaf ears. Since that time to Noya's disillusionment and deepening concerns, malaria has become a menace once again.
For Noya this is personal. In 1961, the World Health Organization recognized Venezuela as the global leader in the fight against this mortal disease after it eradicated it from 68 percent of the country’s malarial zone.
Malaria would emerge here and there in the following years, but thanks to the celebrated Venezuelan physician Arnoldo Gabaldón and his pupils, this country would beat back the disease.
Gabaldón created prevention programs, implemented sweeping sanitary rules and set up a system of monitoring. Any sign of infection was to be reported immediately. He also trained a robust body of tropical medicine researchers in a newly established war-like headquarters for the fight against malaria in the city of Maracay, west of Caracas.
In 1989, Gabaldón alongside the Colombian immunology expert Manuel Elkin Patarroyo and the young but already highly respected Oscar Noya, administered the very first anti-malaria vaccine in the world to thousands of Venezuelans.
The chemically manufactured vaccine known as SPf66, invented by Patarroyo, had limited results with "only" 55 percent effectiveness. Even so, it was a breakthrough. Arnoldo Gabaldón died of cancer the following year at the age of 81, passing the torch to then-37-year-old Noya.
Now, at the end of 2019, exactly 30 years after this historical vaccination campaign, Noya has witnessed the unbelievable—the dismantling of the system created to stop malaria and other tropical diseases.
He points to the abandonment of vaccinations and the elimination of university programs for research. “The rate of vaccinated Venezuelans against tropical diseases like yellow fever has been for decades over 85 percent, now it has dropped to 30 percent,” says Noya.
He is equally devastated by the disintegration of the highly esteemed postgraduate studies at the National Postgraduate of Parasitology of the Faculty of Medicine at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) where the best minds used to teach and study.
"Maduro’s government refused to finance the program, effectively robbing the country of the next generation of tropical disease experts," says Noya. “We live in a country rich with all kinds of viruses and bacteria, yet we won't have researchers to drive the tropical disease back."
In the field, Noya has been assaulted by the gold-digging mafia and once was abducted by them for a short time. Here in the capital, he's constantly harassed by the pro-government thugs known as colectivos.
These armed gangs who roam the streets, rifles in hand, were founded by the late President Hugo Chávez to "defend" or enforce the socialist revolution he launched in 1999. One of the most feared in Caracas is a gang called Piedritas.
Noya knows them only too well. He blames them for the recent attack on his offices. "The Piedritas members keep intimidating me," he says in a quiet, measured voice. He doesn’t appear to be rattled. Or, maybe he's become fatalistic.
In recent years, as the Venezuelan economic crisis has deepened, desperate people began to steal everything they could find. From the institute they have taken away microscopes, printers, air conditioners, cables, scientific glassware and even animals inoculated with dangerous parasites and bacteria. In many instances, they are everyday people trying to feed themselves and their families.
But then there are the colectivos. The Piedritas’ message is clear: Noya must not have a chance to show the world the danger this country faces. This is the reason the gang repeatedly destroys his research data and other vital records in addition to doing physical damage to the research center.
Historically, a tropical disease outbreak in Venezuela is linked to a bad economic situation. For instance in 1983, Venezuela took a nosedive into a deep recession following the dramatic devaluation of the national currency known as the bolívar. As a consequence, desperate Venezuelans headed in droves to the mines to dig up gold and diamonds in an attempt to escape looming poverty. Many were infected by malaria.
However, the 1983 gold rush pales in comparison to the current crisis. The area of the mines is run now by various criminal groups including the Colombian guerilla faction called the ELN that used to fight alongside the infamous FARC in the protracted, bloody civil war in Colombia.
During his trips to this area, Noya has met dozens and dozens of ELN fighters stationed there. Often, he needs permission from their commanders to pass through their checkpoints on his way to the mines. There, Noya says, he is horrified by the current disregard for any sanitary rules at the mines, and the situation is not much better elsewhere in the country.
Noya, like his colleagues, is also worried about the poor diet of many Venezuelans these days. It lacks protein, making their immune systems weak. With the current, dangerous mix of ongoing looting of medical research facilities and hospitals, plus the exodus of first-rate physicians and medical researchers, the lack of medicines and the dramatic shortage of potable running water, it is no wonder that Venezuela could be on the verge of a health disaster.
"It is a perfect storm," states Noya who never fails to bring up the work and personality of his mentor, Arnoldo Gabaldón.
"When he was dying, I promised him I'd continue with his mission and protect Venezuela from any danger," says Noya. He vows to somehow protect Gabaldón’s legacy, but in today’s Venezuela Noya’s own lifetime work is danger. “I hope that our efforts in this crisis will be recognized one day and that future experts will build on it,” he says.