Irishman in Colombia: ‘Zika poses a massive threat’

Since the first reported case in May, 13,000 Colombians have been diagnosed

I first arrived in Colombia in August 2014, after spending some time travelling in South America. Having previously taught English in South Korea for a year, I decided to try it out in a totally different culture and so I found work in Bogotá, where I have lived since.

Colombia is currently facing several huge challenges. The controversial peace process between the government and rebel group FARC is nearing conclusion, but with disagreements over transitional justice and resurgent right-wing paramilitaries, a lasting peace may be a long way off. Plummeting oil prices are responsible for cuts in government spending and a drastic devaluation of the currency. The El Niño weather phenomenon has caused drought across the country. And, most recently, the spread of the Zika virus poses a massive threat to public health.

Since the first reported cases in May 2015, over 13,000 Colombians have been diagnosed with this disease, almost 1,000 of them pregnant women. The majority of cases are on the Caribbean coast, where virus first reached the country. It has now spread inland and there is a great deal of worry in all the warmer regions.

The government has asked women to try to avoid becoming pregnant or to move to higher altitudes, which is an especially difficult task for poorer women. Public healthcare here is notoriously poor, and few will have any confidence in the government’s ability to effectively tackle the crisis.

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Bogotá, located high in the Andes and with a much cooler climate, would usually be relatively safe from mosquito-borne diseases such as this. Right now, there isn’t as much worry here as in other parts of the country. But El Niño is causing unusually hot weather, and there are concerns that if this lasts a long time it could lead to an influx of mosquitoes. Even Bogotanos, accustomed to a cloudy grey city far removed from the tropical surroundings, can’t feel truly safe from the epidemic.

People in Bogotá are definitely beginning to worry about the virus, and in lowland areas things are much worse. Sadly, it’s a sign of the many problems facing Colombia that the Zika crisis has come nowhere close to dominating the news. 2016 is shaping up to be a very difficult year for this country.