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Basic Medications — and Breast Implants — in Short Supply in Deepening Venezuela Crisis

Medicines are vanishing from the shelves in Venezuelan shops and pharmacies. Some pharmaceuticals simply cannot be found and others can only be bought in tiny quantities after trawling pharmacy after pharmacy. The crisis has gotten worse in recent...
Photo by Ariana Cubillos/AP

Ricardo Ramirez Requena, a professor, underwent life-saving surgery some years ago on his intestines.

But he still suffers from pain. Part of the treatment for his relief requires six daily doses of a medication called Pentasa, which was available in Venezuela up until 2013 but now — like a lot other medications and medical supplies here — has disappeared.

As a result, Ricardo has turned to social networks and the help of friends and foreign donors to get Pentasa sent to Venezuela, ideally from Colombia.


Alicia De la Rosa, a news reporter, had an operation to have a gallstone measuring 2.5 cm removed from her kidney a few months ago. The only way to control her condition now is through the use of the drug Urocit. A friend of hers found her one box, and De la Rosa managed to buy another, which gave her treatment for two months.

When that ran out, she searched all over Caracas, but couldn't find it anywhere.

"My doctor, who was fed up with the fact that none of his patients could find Urocit, brought it in from Colombia when he went to a conference there," De la Rosa told Vice News.

Ricardo and Alicia aren't alone. Venezuela is confronting what health authorities are calling a "critical situation" over medical shortages. The capital Caracas is facing a 60 percent shortage of essential medications, officials at the Venezuelan Society of Public Health said on Thursday. That figure rises to 70 percent in Venezuela's provinces.

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Consumers wait in line to enter a shop to purchase basic goods such as diapers and razors in Caracas, Venezuela, October 2014. (Photo by Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

In December, ABC reported that Venezuela's government owes international pharmaceutical companies as much as $4 billion. The administration of President Nicolás Maduro said later in the month it would release funds to buy more drugs, but the shortages have not abated.

The dropping supplies are not just affecting medications and medical goods, but have become chronic across a variety of industries — including breast implants. With food staples low, Venezuelans thronged at grocery stores on Friday under military protection.


Top officials in Maduro's cabinet were meeting with large grocery and goods suppliers to try to solve the shortages, the presidency said in a statement on Friday.

But besides the low supplies of chicken and detergent, the medical supply crisis is hurting vulnerable Venezuelans with serious illnesses. Medications needed by diabetes, hypertension, and HIV patients in particular are running low, forcing Venezuelans to improvise to get the different types of medicines they need.

For months, social networks in the country have been active with people trying to donate medicines they no longer need to those who do. The Twitter hashtags #ServicioPúblico (meaning "Public Service") or #Ayuda ("Help") are often used to pair strangers in medicine swaps or giveaways.

'We now see patients coming here with implants they bought through the Internet, which of course are cheaper but aren't right for their needs.'

Acetaminophen is one of the most sought-after drugs, because it's considered the only effective treatment for dengue fever and Chikungunya, a viral disease transmitted via mosquito bites that causes fever and joint pain.

Euthyroz, which helps to compensate for the lack of thyroid hormones, is in high demand, as is Glucofage, used to regulate insulin levels in the blood. Contraceptives — used not only to "take care of oneself," as women in Venezuela say, but also for gynecological treatments such as polycystic ovaries — are also extremely scarce.


Treatments for epilepsy, cancer and reagents used in medical analysis are lacking, too.

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A worker in the pharmaceutical industry, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals, claims that despite the presence of big industry players in the country, major active ingredients needed for the manufacturing of many drugs and medicines are imported.

The government is behind in the task of approving applications for foreign currency purchases, which companies need to be able to buy the ingredients they need from abroad.

Exchange controls in Venezuela means that getting a hold of dollars or euros requires applying for official authorization. Following approval, the foreign currency is handed over, but there have been huge delays in the process since it began, the source told VICE News.

Doctor Obdulita Torres, a resident in her final year in cosmetic surgery in Caracas's Central University Hospital, said even the most basic supplies such as gauze, syringes, and gloves aren't available.

"And it's not only in this hospital," Torres said. "At the Concepcion Palacios maternity hospital, for example, students have to buy their own gloves because the hospital doesn't have any."

Patients are forced to source complex equipment such as instruments for different types of surgeries from outside hospitals, at high personal cost. That creates a huge economic burden on people coming to the Central University Hospital for treatment, most of who are from Venezuela's poorest social brackets, Torres said.


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Venezuela's famous appetite for plastic surgery is also being tested by an absence of breast implants. In 2013 alone, 38,500 breast implant operations were carried out, according to the International Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

"Now there are no implants because so many companies haven't been able to get hold of the dollars to buy them and bring them here," Torres explained.

She added that many well-known implant brands are no longer available because of the high costs of bringing the materials into the country, a factor that is hammering the market. Before, implants cost around 6,000 bolivars ($60 dollars according to the black-market exchange rate, and $952 bucks according to the official rate), now the cheapest — a Chinese brand — cost around 34,000 bolivars ($340 on the black market, or $5,396 at the official rate).

"We now see patients coming here with implants they bought through the Internet, which of course are cheaper but aren't right for their needs. I remember one woman who came here with her implants in a plastic bag from the supermarket!" Torres said. "Implants need to be sterile. They're foreign objects that we are going to put into the human body."

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Follow Alicia Hernandez on Twitter @por_puesto.