The Argument

Latin America’s other outbreak

The political fallout of Argentina’s dengue fever epidemic. By Michael Shifter Mexico’s swine flu outbreak has captured the world’s attention over the past two weeks. But Latin America’s other, less-noticed epidemic is not only more severe, but may have more serious consequences for the government struggling to control it. The worst outbreak of dengue fever ...

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Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner plays with a fan during the Progressive Governance Leaders' Summit opening in Vina del Mar, 120 km west from Santiago, on March 28, 2009. Center-left leaders meet in Chile at a conference dominated by the financial crisis and global efforts to tackle it. AFP PHOTO/Claudio Santana (Photo credit should read CLAUDIO SANTANA/AFP/Getty Images)

The political fallout of Argentina’s dengue fever epidemic.

By Michael Shifter

Mexico’s swine flu outbreak has captured the world’s attention over the past two weeks. But Latin America’s other, less-noticed epidemic is not only more severe, but may have more serious consequences for the government struggling to control it.

The worst outbreak of dengue fever in Argentine history has affected more than 20,000 people since the beginning of this year, including two children born with the disease and at least half a dozen people who died. A tropical disease transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, dengue is accompanied by severe flulike symptoms, but the vast majority of cases are not lethal. In Argentina, roughly 80 percent of the dengue cases have been in the predominantly poor, rural northern provinces of Chaco and Catamarca, but several cases have been confirmed in the capital, Buenos Aires.

Dengue fever is a wake-up call for one of Latin America’s most prosperous and highly educated countries. Argentina enjoyed a period of robust growth between its devastating, unprecedented economic crisis in 2001 and the onset of the current global slowdown. The outbreak is disheartening for many Argentines who had begun to think their country had reversed its recent decline. Dengue is common in neighboring Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil, but until a decade ago Argentina had managed to escape the ravages of the fever.

Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had already moved the midterm legislative elections up four months to June 28 to avert even greater political damage to herself and her Peronist party in a worsening economy. Now, her government’s handling of the fever crisis has emerged as a potentially damaging campaign issue.

In the midst of their heated clash, both the government and the opposition have been criticized for exploiting the dengue epidemic for political gain. Fernández has been accused of downplaying the severity of the outbreak, resisting opposition pressure to declare a national health emergency. Meanwhile, some say the opposition is more focused on pointing fingers than finding a solution, failing to recognize government efforts after a slow start. As the author Mempo Giardinelli wrote in Argentina’s left-leaning daily Página/12 on April 30, both sides are guilty of “prioritizing the elections over the health of the population.”

Although they responded aggressively to prepare for the possibility of swine flu infection, Argentine officials did not immediately take sufficient measures to deal with the homegrown plague. The problem exposes serious deficiencies in the country’s healthcare system — another example of often precarious public services throughout Latin America.

Preventive measures aside, it is essential at least to have accurate and credible data on the status of the epidemic. Because the Fernández administration’s statistics on inflation and other economic indicators are widely seen as underreported relative to rising prices, people are similarly suspicious of government figures related to the spread of dengue cases.

The handling of the dengue outbreak is emblematic of deeper governance and institutional weaknesses, particularly poor coordination and relations between provincial and federal governments. In just two years, the once unassailable public support for Fernández and her husband, former President Néstor Kirchner, has plummeted from about 70 percent to 35 percent. Polls indicate that growing insecurity in urban areas is the top public concern, while the perception of manipulated inflation figures and official corruption also stand out in this distressed economic environment.

Fernández is looking forward to the start of the Argentine winter on June 21, as the cold weather should help contain the fever. But she is most likely apprehensive about the critical elections a week later, when her government could possibly lose its current majority in the legislature. Whatever the outcome, the dengue epidemic has already helped put the country’s deepening governance difficulties in even sharper relief.

Michael Shifter is vice president for policy at Inter-American Dialogue and adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

CLAUDIO SANTANA/AFP/Getty Images

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