Latinnews Archive

Andean Group - 18 April 1991


Well aware of the sever impact that the cholera epidemic (RA-91-02) could have on Peruvian exports of seafood -- in early March the Asociacion de Exportadores (Adex) claimed that foreign bans on imports of Peruvian frozen fish had already caused a loss of US $ 50m, while officials said that, if more European countries joined the boycott, total export revenues could be down by between 10% and 20% this year, or be it, by US$ 300m to US$ 60m --, in mid-March President Alberto Fujimori tried to convince both Peruvian consumers and foreign importers of fishmeal (Peru's second largest export) and frozen and canned fish, as well as of fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, that there was no need for concern.

Seeking to show that it was safe to consume fish, Fujimori and fishing minister Felix Alberto Canal Torres ate cebiche (the traditional dish of raw fish marinated in lemon juice) in front of the television cameras. This was taken as a rebuttal of health minister Carlos Vidal Layseca's earlier warning against the consumption of cebiche, which many suggested had triggered a panic abroad and at home -- in early March it was reported that, due to a slump in consumption, some 400 tonnes of fish worth around US$ 1m were lost at the Lima and Callao terminals.

Layseca, who had reportedly run afoul of Fujimori when the epidemic became evident by ignoring the President's intructions to say it was 'an acute diarrhoea of unknown origin' rather than cholera, promptly resigned from the cabinet. He was replaced as health minister by Victor Yamamoto, director of the Universidad Cayetano Heredia's hospital.

* Unhygienic handling

Layseca had suggested that sea currents carrying contaminated effluents along the coastline had caused the rapid initial spread of the disease, and had warned against the risks posed by the 'poor man's cebiche', using fish caught in coastal waters. A health ministry publicity campaign also advised Peruvians not to eat cebiche and shellfish.

It was later explained that the point Layseca was making was not that the fish might be contaminated but that contaminated water might remain present due to the unhygienic preparation of the 'poor man's cebiche'. A similar point was made by the Peruvian maritime institute, Imarpe. After extensive tests on sea products, an Imarpe spokesman declared Peru's fish 'definitely not contaminated', adding that 'if there is any problem, it comes from subsequent handling.'

* Rising death toll

While nothing that an accurate assessment of the spread of the epidemic was impossible because of an indefinite strike by some 85,000 health workers demanding better pay, on 21 March the health ministry said 'partial' figures showed that 88,748 cases of cholera had been confirmed and that the death toll had risen to 535.

Although President Fujimori claimed the epidemic was 'under control', government officials said it would take another two to three months to contain it. But some experts suggested that they were being over-optimistic.

In an interview published by the La Republica newspaper, epidemiologist Joaquin Cornejo, a professor at San Marcos university, said the epidemic could last for ano-ther four or five months and affect up to 450,000 people (twice the government's original estimate). Cornejo also warned that cholera could become endemic, flaring up every four or five years.

* Ideal breeding ground

The experts' pessimism reflects the fact that widespread poverty and the absence of basic hygiene make much of Peru an ideal breeding ground for cholera and other diseases. It is noted that more than three-quarters of those affected by the cholera epidemic live in shanty towns around Lima and other large cities, where sanitation is minimal.

'Forty percent of the people in Lima don't have potable water, and in the provincial cities the numbers are even worse,' former health minister Uriel Garcia, a prominent pathologist, has said. He has also pointed out that, in Lima, 'the system is so deteriorated that the sewage and potable-water lines leak, and their contents mix.'


Minister of fishing Canal Torres, who joined President Fujimori in eating cebiche in a televised stunt to convince Peruvians that it was safe to consume fish (see text), ended up in the police hospital with cholera, according to the weekly Oiga. The magazine has said that the minister's medical record has conveniently 'disappeared' from the hospital.

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