Earlier this month, Peruvian Health Minister Cesar Vazquez delivered an unfortunate phrase that sparked public outrage: “No one dies from Guillain-Barre because there is no cure.” Soon after, he had to back off and say that “no one can guarantee that.” It is symptomatic that the portfolio’s top authority has demonstrated this ignorance of the neurological disorder that in 2023 registered four deaths and attacked 211 people in Peru. Very little is known about this syndrome, which affects one or two people per 100,000 inhabitants per year. There are few reliable facts, and for this reason, various myths are woven around him.
Guillain-Barré syndrome, which may begin with a tingling sensation, affects the peripheral nervous system, causing muscle weakness. If it worsens, it can cause paralysis, difficulty breathing, speech and swallowing problems, and even death. Salud con Lupa experts point out that the main misconceptions surrounding Guillain-Barré include the belief that it is contagious, while it is an autoimmune disease, that is, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in its own body. In addition, it is believed that it only affects the elderly, while statistics show that it can affect people of all ages, although it is true that it is more common in adult men. It is also claimed to be preventable, but has yet to be determined how. What is certain is that most cases appear one or two weeks after infection with a bacterium or virus. Therefore, the Ministry of Health recommends vaccination against influenza and pneumococcus, as well as strict hygiene practices, such as proper hand washing and covering the face when sneezing.
Guillain-Barre, who bears the names of two neurologists who helped the French army during World War I, also has no cure. But timely treatment can relieve symptoms and shorten their duration. One, called plasmapheresis, involves extracting plasma to remove antibodies that have triggered an immune response, while another treatment uses immunoglobulin—a drug that helps the body fight infections—intravenously. When the number of cases began to rise, especially in Lima and areas of the northern coast, such as Piura, Lambaeque and La Libertad, shortages of the drug were reported in the country.
“According to the National Center for Procurement of Strategic Health Resources (Cenares), until May 2023, 28 out of 53 hospitals across the country did not have immunoglobulin, and a further twelve hospitals reported low stocks,” reports Salud con Lupa. In the last month, the scenario worsened: from 96 cases before June 10, by July 10, the number had doubled to 191. Faced with the crisis, on July 10, the government declared a public health emergency throughout Peru for a period of 90 days. . This supreme decree plans to purchase 7,887 ampoules of immunoglobulin and 1,000 ampoules of human albumin, as well as strengthen surveillance and research on this disease.
Another difficulty faced by Peru is that, according to the Ministry of Health, only 10 facilities across the country practice the plasmapheresis treatment required during the first week of an infection. Seven of them are in Lima. The rest are in the regions of Piura, La Libertad and Cajamarca. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Even in the most favorable conditions, between 3% and 5% of patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome die from complications such as paralysis of the respiratory muscles, sepsis, pulmonary thrombosis, or cardiac arrest.” So far, four Peruvians have died, 32 patients remain in hospitals and 175 have been discharged.
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