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Death in the Dominican: Public Health Watch

JUL 03, 2019 | BRIAN P. DUNLEAVY
What’s going on in the Dominican Republic?

Good question.

Multiple media reports have highlighted a series of mysterious deaths in the country, and the incidents have drawn the attention of elected officials here in US, which had been home to the deceased. Between May 2018 and  June 24, 2019, 13 American citizens have died in the island nation. Although autopsy results and toxicology reports are still pending for many of the victims, their relatives have suggested that their “deaths may have been caused by adulterated alcohol or misused pesticides,” according to CBS News.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has called on the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to join forces with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in assisting local law enforcement on investigating these cases.

“Given that we still have a whole lot of questions and very few answers into just what, if anything, is cause for the recent spate of sicknesses and several deaths of Americans in the Dominican Republic, the feds should double their efforts on helping get to the bottom of things,” the senator said in a statement.

Both the ATF and FBI have offices in the Caribbean.

Causes of death for several of the victims to date have been listed as heart attack and/or respiratory failure by local authorities in Santo Domingo. However, many of the incident reports suggest that several of the victims had consumed alcohol at a bar or restaurant immediately prior to their deaths.

Meanwhile, other US-based travelers to the country told CNN recently that they also fell ill during their time there. They reported symptoms such as throat and nasal discomfort after noticing a chemical odor in their hotel rooms.

One couple told the news network that their physicians suggested they had been “poisoned.”

Hal King, PhD, a microbiologist and public health consultant, told the Washington Post that there is no evidence to suggest that the 13 deaths are linked in any way, given that they occurred at different resorts in the country. An infectious disease component is thus also unlikely, but “no conclusion can be made without epidemiological data,” he added.

As of this writing, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not issued a travel warning for the Dominican Republic and, per an agency spokesperson, “currently does not have plans to…” Additionally, a CDC spokesperson told Contagion®, the “CDC has not received a request for assistance from the Dominican Republic and is not involved in [any ongoing] investigations.”

Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) has yet to weigh in on the recent spate of deaths. Its last report on the Dominican Republic concerned the Zika outbreak there in 2016.

Officials at the US embassy in Santo Domingo did not respond to requests for comment. However, the State Department does have a standing travel warning for Americans visiting the country, though it focuses on crime, rather than risk for illness.

Still, the news can’t be good for the country’s tourism industry, which, according to a report from the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, makes up roughly 8% of its economy. In 2017, a record 6.2 million people visited the Dominican Republic, but it’s likely that 2019 figures will be less than that—at least until the questions surrounding these mysterious deaths are resolved.

On July 1, 2019, pop star Rick Springfield announced that he was cancelling a November concert planned to take place at a resort in Punta Cana, citing the cancellation was made “[i]n an abundance of caution and for the peace of mind and well-being of my fans, band and crew...”

So what’s happening in the Dominican Republic?

Time will (hopefully) tell.
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