Ceviche And Cholera: Lessons We Can Learn

Hayley Serpa/Contributing Writer

1991 saw the beginnings of a time of sudden change for my country of Peru. Our most infamous president, Alberto Fujimori, had been elected a year prior. Fujimori had just instituted a series of economic reforms popularly known as “Fujishock” and was still actively embroiled in conflict with the “terrucos” (Quechuan word for “terrorists”) of the inner provinces. In this tumultuous political climate is where we find a lesson to be learned about leadership during unprecedented times of crisis. 

Much like what occurred to us here in the United States, the first few cases of what would become an epidemic appeared in mid-January. The symptoms of excessive vomiting, dehydration, profuse diarrhea and muscle cramps in large parts of the coastal population exhibited all the signs of an extreme cholera outbreak. 

Cholera is a diarrheal illness caused by the infection of the small intestine by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. This bacterium can be transmitted by the consumption of contaminated fish or water supplies. 

The cholera outbreak in Peru was so bad that by mid-March of 1991 (around two months since the first cases had been reported), there were over 55,000 cases of cholera and 258 total deaths. Most of these cases were concentrated in the fishing towns on the northern coast of Peru, like Chimbote, Chancay and Trujillo. Here, the hospitals had an overflow of patients to the point that they had to set up tents outside to house the remaining patients, much like North Carolinian hospitals did in the spring of 2020.   

Also much like our own present-day situation in the U.S., the Peruvian head of state went completely against what health ministry officials recommended he do. 

They advised that the entire Peruvian public avoid eating raw foods—specifically raw fish—to prevent the infection of Cholera. Fujimori decided to broadcast a lunch on live television, showing himself and his wife eating ceviche, a traditional Peruvian dish made with raw fish. He then went on to state that “Peruvian fish products do not have the cholera bacteria.”

Doctors rushed to tell the people what the truth was behind fish and cholera. They continued to advise against the consumption of ceviche since the numbers would only keep rising if they did. The people protested. If the president ate it, why couldn’t they? 

This brings back recent memories of President Donald Trump’s refusal to set an example for U.S. citizens by wearing a mask. This vow to never wear a mask in public contradicts what the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has published about masks helping to prevent the transmission of respiratory droplets through the air. If Trump was to wear the mask once—much like if Fujimori had not aired the raw fish luncheon—simple safety precautions like wearing a mask would become normalized. He has to set an example for the American people, remind them that he is also with them in this scary time.   

Over a year after Fujimori aired himself eating the ceviche platter, the Worldwide Health Organization counted over 400,000 cases of Cholera in the region. Around 3,100 people had succumbed to the bacteria by August 1992. Many doctors believe that Fujimori’s dismissive approach to the consumption of possibly contaminated raw fish played a large factor in the increase of cases. His attitude had encouraged others to continue consuming raw fish even after the Ministry of Health had advised against it. 

It is not common that a developing Latin American country such as Peru, can provide an example to the U.S., but we are in a new time. Fujimori’s decision sings a song quite similar to the song Trump is singing now. We can only hope that he realizes the importance of wearing a mask and listening to health officials before it is too late. 

If he doesn’t, we will face the same glum results that Peru did thirty years ago.

Featured image by Magnus Bråth on Flickr.


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