In mid-March, extraordinarily high temperatures and heavy rains hit Peru, causing the worst landslides and flooding in decades. The rain, which has not yet fully relented, has destroyed large swaths of the country. Nearly all 25 regions in the country have been impacted, with the north coastal areas suffering the most severe damage.
According to Peru’s National Emergency Operations Center, the natural disaster has affected more than one million people, killing 107 people and leaving more than 221,000 people with damaged homes and at least 150,000 people homeless. Power outages and obliterated roads and bridges have left many people isolated, resulting in delays in aid to the communities with the greatest needs.
We recently talked with Ernesto Ortiz, a research project manager at the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI), to get his thoughts on how the rains will affect public health in Peru—his home country and an area of the world where DGHI conducts a significant amount of research.
DGHI: What kinds of health problems do you anticipate as a result of the landslides and flooding?
Ortiz: Unfortunately, the conditions created by the rain, landslides and flooding are perfect for spreading a wide range of infectious diseases, such as acute diarrheal infections, acute respiratory infections, vector-borne diseases and skin infections. For example, the water supply disruption could trigger diarrheal infections, while the stagnant waters will favor the spread of vector-borne diseases like dengue, Zika and chikungunya. We’re already seeing outbreaks of dengue, Zika and leptospirosis—a disease transmitted through water contaminated by rodent waste—on the coast.
The landslides and flooding have also affected the country’s health infrastructure quite a bit. Nearly 600 health centers and hospitals have been damaged or destroyed as a result of the rain, which brings significant health consequences. For example, people with injuries related to the rain may not be able to get the care they need, and access to medicine has been seriously compromised in some communities. The government has been building temporary health posts to try to minimize health care disruptions, but people in many affected areas currently have no access to health care.
DGHI: What are some other ways the Peruvian government is responding to this natural disaster?
Ortiz: I think their response has been pretty good. It’s difficult because often a natural disaster is confined to one part of a country, so you can corral resources for that one area, but in this case, the flooding and landslides are so widespread. The government has assigned each of its cabinet ministers to a specific region of Peru, and each of those individuals is in charge of leading the response in that region.
It’s still raining and the flooding continues, so the government is just trying to save lives at this stage—for example, using helicopters to rescue people and deliver water, food, medicines and other needed supplies. And health officials are implementing an aggressive campaign to minimize the risk of disease outbreaks. Health brigades are going door-to-door in the affected areas, advising families on steps they can take to reduce their risk of disease and providing them with mosquito repellent, bed nets and water purification tablets. They’re also fumigating homes and streets to kill mosquitoes.
The armed forces have also helped a lot. It has been a very positive effort that has brought diverse leaders and civil society all together to address the crisis in solidarity.
DGHI: How will this crisis affect DGHI’s work in Peru?
Ortiz: The research we’re doing in Peru is in areas that haven’t been affected badly—Madre de Dios in the southeast Peruvian Amazon and Lima, the capital city. Our research projects and summer fieldwork plans are still moving forward.
That said, in the future, I think it would be interesting to focus our attention on these areas that have been affected to explore various impacts of climate change on public health. We know that climate change is behind the extreme temperatures that prompted this unusual level of rain and the subsequent landslides and flooding.
To learn more about the flooding conditions and rebuilding efforts in Peru, visit the U.S. Embassy of Peru.
The conditions created by the rain, landslides and flooding are perfect for spreading a wide range of infectious diseases.Ernesto Ortiz, research project manager