A national health emergency has been declared in Peru after a mysterious paralysis-causing illness has infected over 231 people and killed four since the start of 2023.
A frightening wave of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) has gripped the South American country since January, with more than half of cases occurring in a narrow five-week span from early June to mid-July.
GBS is a rare condition which causes the immune system to attack peripheral nerves, resulting in muscle weakness, loss of sensation in the limbs, and problems swallowing or breathing.
The majority of patients suffer from a progressive form of paralysis, which starts in the feet and legs and slowly works its way up their body.
Symptoms typically last a few weeks, with most individuals recovering without long-term, severe neurological complications.
Patient samples taken by Peruvian health officials suggest the illness is transmitted by bacteria found in contaminated food and water.
The same bacterial strain, Campylobacter jejuni, was also deemed responsible for a similar GBS outbreak in Peru four years ago.
Neither the Peruvian government, the World Health Organization or the Pan American Health Organization have instituted any travel restrictions over the GBS outbreak, which is typically non-fatal.
But the outbreak is likely to affect Peru’s tourism industry, which attracts more than three million visitors each year.
The World Health Organisation has said: ‘Guillain-Barré syndrome is potentially life-threatening. GBS patients should be hospitalised so that they can be monitored closely. Supportive care includes monitoring of breathing, heartbeat and blood pressure.
‘In cases where a person’s ability to breathe is impaired, he or she is usually put on a ventilator. All GBS patients should be monitored for complications, which can include abnormal heart beat, infections, blood clots, and high or low blood pressure.
‘There is no known cure for GBS, but treatments can help improve symptoms of GBS and shorten its duration. Given the autoimmune nature of the disease, its acute phase is typically treated with immunotherapy, such as plasma exchange to remove antibodies from the blood or intravenous immunoglobulin. It is most often beneficial when initiated 7 to 14 days after symptoms appear.
‘In cases where muscle weakness persists after the acute phase of the illness, patients may require rehabilitation services to strengthen their muscles and restore movement.’
The highest number of cases were reported in the Peruvian capital of Lima two weeks ago, with the average age of patients reported as around 41.
While GBS cannot be spread from person to person, experts say it’s essential to focus on your hand hygiene and food choices if you’re travelling to areas with Guillain-Barré caused by bacterial infections.
The outbreak comes as the country also battles a massive outbreak of Dengue fever, a ‘bone-breaking’ virus which has affected at least 150,000 people to date.
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