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Venezuelans at Risk as Country's Ailing Healthcare System Deteriorates

The country is facing a critical shortage of medical supplies as its economy reels, depriving vulnerable citizens of treatment and forcing them in some cases to resort to veterinary medicine.
September 4, 2015, 6:15pm
Photo by Ariana Cubillos/AP

Medical and human rights groups are concerned about a crumbling healthcare system that is exposing tens of thousands of Venezuelans to disease and death amid a dearth of adequate doctors, drugs, and supplies.

This week, a cancer support organization called on Venezuela's Ministry of Health to meet the needs of some 13,000 cancer patients whose access to life-saving medicines in seriously threatened.

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Bolivia Bocaranda, the president of Senos Ayuda (Breast Support), appealed to the government for urgent assistance, saying that in some cases cancer patients have been unable to undergo chemotherapy because of a lack of filters used to administer treatment, and doctors without the proper needles have been unable to perform biopsies.

"The shortage of inputs for cancer patients jeopardizes life and it lifts the possibility of a metastasis that can be fatal in the near future," Bocaranda told a Caracas radio station.

"There is currently a medicine shortage for all types of cancer," she added. "Patients are at risk because medicine delivery has worsened."

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Healthcare officials are also concerned that the country's vulnerable medical system will come under increasing pressure from a large spike in cases of insect-borne diseases such as malaria, which can lead to liver damage or even death if not properly treated. On Wednesday, a Caracas-based nongovernment group reported a massive increase in people contracting malaria, with more than 82,700 recorded cases. The data collected by the Red Defendamos la Epidemiología (Let's Defend Epidemiology Network) showed a 55 percent increase of cases from the same time last year.

Despite Venezuela's declaring itself malaria-free in the 1960s, the country's poverty, inadequate housing, and lack of medical planning have contributed to a resurgence of the mosquito-transmitted disease, especially in the jungle and in urban centers. Meanwhile, cases of dengue fever, tuberculosis, and Leishmaniasis, a sandfly-borne disease, have also rebounded in Venezuela in the last few years.

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As the government has tried to suppress information that might further turn the country's frustrated citizenry against his administration, the Health Ministry has over the last year been slow to report information about outbreaks in its epidemiological bulletins.

In March, locally-based public health care organization Médicos Por La Salud (Doctors for Health) documented chronic shortages of routinely-used or essential medications in 60 percent of the 130 public hospitals surveyed around the country. Around 44 percent of the facilities also lacked functioning operation rooms and 94 percent of labs were also short of necessary operating materials. Venezuela's Pharmaceutical Federation has estimated that some 70 percent of popular medications have vanished altogether from pharmacies and hospitals.

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in April that the current administration has attempted to deflect blame for the crisis. It detained two directors of a pharmacy chain in February for closing cash registers at one of its stores and causing a long line. At the time, President Nicolás Maduro accused the chain of "carrying out an economic war against the people." Police have also reportedly detained or interrogated doctors who have spoken out about the medicine and supply shortages or been seen treating wounded protesters, HRW said.

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The shortfall of medicines and the healthcare crisis come as Venezuela's economy spirals and endures a crippling shortage of goods, in part due to a steep drop over the past year in the price of oil, which the country relies on for revenue. Prices have roughly halved since June 2014, and experts don't expect them to recover anytime soon.

While the government has pledged more support for the healthcare system — one of a number of sources of discontent in the country — assistance and action has not been forthcoming.

Since a number of crucial post-surgery medications and other treatments have grown exceedingly scarce, patients have reportedly put their lives at risk by turning to veterinary versions of drugs intended for use on pets and other animals that contain the same or similar active ingredients. Many have few alternatives, as most pharmaceutical medicines are imported to Venezuela and treatment can be based on the next available shipment.

The Venezuelan Medical Federation has said that people are using a wide range of medicines for animals, from steroids to antibiotics and creams for skin conditions. In some of the more severe cases, even some transplant patients are turning to the pet drugs to prevent their bodies from rejecting their new organs, according to an AFP report last month.

"When the human version (of a popular immunosuppressant drug) ran out, everyone started looking for the canine version," Pharmaceutical Federation president Freddy Ceballos told AFP last month.

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