LIMA, Peru – The Peruvian Health Ministry has revealed that so far this year at least 133 children under the age of five have succumbed to fatal respiratory infections caused by bitterly cold weather in the Andes of southern Peru. In the last few weeks, temperatures have dropped to 20ºC below zero in some of the indigenous communities that lie more than 3,000 metres above sea level.
Health Minister Oscar Ugarte told El Comercio that 27 of the deaths occurred in the Puno department, 16 in Cusco, three in Huancavelica, three in Lima and eight in the north-western region of Loreto.
Worst affected was Puno in the high Andean plateau near the border with Bolivia. With at least 220,000 of its 1.3 million people living in extreme poverty, Puno regularly reports thousands of cases of respiratory infections at this time of the year.
According to EFE, Ugarte explained that “the number of deaths is high because in these areas of southern Peru, the people live in extreme poverty and have to put up with freezing weather without any way of protecting themselves from the cold”.
“We are trying to help them as best we can,” said the minister, as he announced a respiratory virus vaccination campaign in the areas most at risk.
According to an editorial in El Comercio, however, the number of deaths may continue to grow unless the Peruvian authorities act quickly. The high number of deaths from pneumonia has, according to Radio Programas del Perú, aroused indignation because the Health Ministry’s reaction is seen as tepid compared to its recent vigorous response to just 30 cases of the A/H1N1 virus.
The Health Ministry pointed out that many residents in the remote regions of the high Andes cannot reach their nearest health centre in time. The Ministry claims, however, that so far this year its hospitals have treated more than a million children under five years of age for acute respiratory infections. Extreme poverty, chronic malnutrition and poor housing and shelter make children more vulnerable to such infections.