Puno Regional President accused of negligence in child deaths from cold

Peru has declared a state of emergency in the highland department of Puno, where 35 children have recently died from exposure to cold weather, and accused Regional President Hernán Fuentes of negligence and mismanagement of funds, reported daily El Comercio.

These deaths are due to “structural poverty,” but in this particular case, the “mismanagement of government funds” has played a crucial role, said presidential Cabinet Chief Yehude Simon.

“The entire Puno population could have been attended to. But, because of conflicts and strikes, the vaccination campaign was put aside and we now are suffering the consequences. More than 150 children have died across Peru, and 35 in Puno. This is much more serious than the swine flu. We expect that by declaring the state of emergency, the mayors and the Regional Government will have no option but to spend the funds destined for health care during this year’s cold winter months.”

Simon said more than 27 million soles, or $9 million, were transferred from the central government to Puno. The Health Ministry also allocated an additional 14 million soles, or $4.7 million, for the repair, and purchase of equipment, and shipped off thousands of vaccines.

But, according to Health Minister Oscar Ugarte, of the 23,230 doses of flu and pneumonia vaccines delivered to Puno’s Regional Government, only 234 were applied to children and adults.

“These accusations are completely false, and have no basis whatsoever,” said Fuentes in comments to RPP.

We never “received a single penny” from Lima, added Fuentes. And, if people are dying, it’s not only because of respiratory diseases, but also because of malnutrition.

We are complying with our obligations,” said Percy Zaga Bustinza, Director of Puno’s Social Development sector. “On Friday we will be inaugurating a new health center in Pinaya, and then a mini hospital in Santa Lucia.”

In the mountainous regions of Peru, such as Puno, Huancavelica, Cuzco and Arequipa, children routinely die from exposure to cold weather during the winter months. Between June and August, temperatures often plummet below 0 degrees Celsius in the higher regions of the Andes, resulting in what many refer to as a cold weather ‘emergency’.

But, UNICEF officials are trying to correct this misnomer. According to Andres Franco, UNICEF’s Representative in Peru, the deadly cold snaps are predictable and the deaths preventable.

“Here we are – UNICEF – doing child survival right there; trying to make a contribution and to avoid it from happening. We even find ourselves trying not to call it an ‘emergency’ anymore, because how can it be an emergency when we know it happens every year?” said Franco.

The government must start developing a sustained and comprehensive government policy to address the recurring cold weather phenomenon, said Peru’s Ombudswoman, Beatriz Merino. It makes no sense to continue treating it as a posibility or as an eventuality every year, she added.

In Peru’s southern highlands, where poverty is widespread and there is a lack of doctors, health care facilities, medicine and, in some areas, deficient basic utilities such as electricity, children – often malnourished – are much more vulnerable to extreme cold temperatures.

To counter this problem, the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Carmen Vildoso, is currently working on a project designed to adapt solar panel heated walls used for guinea pig breeding to residents’ homes.

“These walls create micro-climates, used to keep the guinea pigs warm,” said Vildoso. “Our idea is to build similar walls in people’s homes. This will allow families to keep warm, especially the children.”

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