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For years now, Venezuela has been plagued with a political and socioeconomic crisis as Maduro, continues to strengthen his control over the nation. Some economists are even considering the conditions to be worse than the Great Depression due to hyperinflation like never seen before, according to NBC. As the country’s economy continues to crumble, it is taking the state-run health care system down with it as the government stops supplying essential medicines for patients. This has resulted in extreme shortages in medicines, poor hospital conditions, and several planned and unplanned power outages, causing critical services, such as clinics and hospitals, to go without power for days. According to the Wall Street Journal, the people are scavenging through construction waste, and selling stolen copper wiring and fiber-optic cables in order to afford the basic necessities of life. Jobless, hungry and hopeless, it is hard to imagine when the light at the end of the tunnel will appear.
Currently, less than 10% of operating and emergency rooms and ICU’s are fully operational, 76% of hospitals suffer from a shortage in medical supplies, 81% lack surgical materials, and 70% complain of intermittent water supply according to the Venezuelan Health Observatory, a research centre at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. According to local human rights organizations, there has also been a 50% decline in the number of medical staff at public hospitals, which makes up over 90% of health services. Also, a quarter of all paediatric units have been shut down completely. The harsh reality is that pharmacies are empty, healthcare facilities are falling apart, and prices on the black market are extremely inflated. As the crisis deepens, people are becoming more and more desperate, with some even turning to steroids prescribed for household pets as treatment, taking long-expired medicines, or waiting to collect unused pills from people who have passed away. There have also been reports of medical flea markets to sell medicine smuggled in from Colombia, however prices are hyper-inflated, thereby leaving many with no choice but to take no medication at all, or seek traditional healers for serious illnesses such as cancer, which require modern medicine, according to Newsweek.
Among the most vulnerable patients are those awaiting, or who have recently had an organ transplant due to the risk that their bodies will reject the new organs. In order to mitigate this risk, it is critical for the patient to receive an immune system suppressing drug otherwise the organ can deteriorate in as little as 48 hours, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2017, the government suspended its transplant program due to financial constraints, leaving almost 5,000 patients waiting for new kidneys without a fighting chance. According to Codevida, also known as the Coalition of Organizations for the Right to Health and Life, a patient rejects their new organ every 2 days in Venezuela. Not only are transplant recipients struggling to survive without medication, malnutrition is becoming more common due to food shortages, which increases a patient’s risk of organ rejection, according to Dr. Luis Hernandez, a nephrologist at University Hospital in Caracas. The good news is that the Pan American Health Organization has helped Venezuela purchase 135,000 pills of tacrolimus and about 500,000 pills of mycophenolate, both of which are immunosuppressive drugs and expected to be delivered in April. However, activists say this will only cover two of the several medications doctors prescribe to transplant patients. Other nations and individual donors have expressed interest in supplying more immunosuppressive drugs, but are too afraid that the shipment would be seized at Venezuela’s ports. The alternative of smuggling small packages with individual travellers just would not be enough to satisfy demand. For many, being the recipient of a transplanted kidney would be considered to be a blessing, but in Venezuela it is nothing short of a death sentence. One kidney recipient was Marta Solorzano, who successfully received a transplanted kidney but without the correct medicine, she suffered from chronic fatigue and excruciating pain for months as her body slowly rejected the kidney according to the Wall Street Journal. She eventually passed away on March 4th, 2018.
For doctors, the job has become even more difficult as they now have to inform patients that they do not have the medication or appropriate equipment to treat them. This has caused many Doctors to struggle to live and support their families as the government simply cannot pay them a sufficient salary. As result, doctors are fleeing the nation to countries such as Chile, Ecuador and Argentina, where it is easy to revalidate their medical licenses. In fact, three quarters of the doctors who have left the Medical Centre of Caracas have done so in the last 2 years according to NBC. One example is Cristian Diaga, a medical student in Caracas who has been studying for 6 years and is soon to graduate. However, instead of continuing his training at the top hospital in the country, he is taking a job at a fast-food restaurant in Argentina saying, “[i]n Venezuela, it feels like we are all just dying slowly and there’s no hope for a change. I don’t care if I’m gonna work as a doctor or not. I just want to have food, medicines, security, a house, a car, and be able to give a good life to my loved ones. Every day we see people dying for diseases that we know exactly how to cure but when you don’t even have gloves, masks, gauzes, medicines or some big but necessary equipment, it’s too hard” he said to The Guardian.
Just like Diaga, many people are fleeing Venezuela to take jobs well below their capabilities in neighbouring countries just to ensure their survival. Currently, there are 660,000 Venezuelans residing in Colombia and another 100,000 in Peru according to the UN Refugee Agency. Those that choose to stay are often crossing the border to Colombia in order to receive medical attention. According to NBC, nearly 25,000 Venezuelans were admitted in Colombian ER’s last year, up from 1,500 in 2015.
Elena Rincones, a 25-year-old political scientist from Caracas who is relocating to Colombia this month said, “I’d rather be working as a waitress and being able to ship my father his meds than watch him die slowly because we can’t find them nor afford them if we do. Last month alone I spent 10 times the minimum wage most Venezuelans earn on my dad’s medicine for his diabetes. And last time I got sick, I had to look in about six pharmacies to get the medication I needed. There are no medicines, people are even dying due to lack of antibiotics,” according to The Guardian. Some patients that chose to stay are having to travel over 200 miles by bus for treatment, but the trip is extremely strenuous and painful, enough that many are unable to make it through according to the Wall Street Journal.
Venezuela was, at a time, considered one of Latin America’s richest nations but, has deteriorated sharply since the economic collapse dating back to the early 2000’s. Now, Venezuela’s health care system is comparable to that of the poorest nations in the world. Incomes have collapsed to a point where public school teachers with over twenty years of experience are making a monthly salary of less than a carton of eggs according to NBC. To make matters worse, Maduro has prohibited most international humanitarian donations, including lifesaving medicines, because his regime denies that the country is facing a crisis and believes accepting aid, especially from the U.S., would pave the way for foreign intervention. Venezuela’s Health Minister, Luis Lopez confirmed this position back in December saying, “[n]o way are [we] going to allow this right-wing to impose a supposed humanitarian aid when our people are already being tended to by President Maduro,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Several doctors have protested, pleading for WHO to play a more active role in addressing the issues. In March of this year, the U.S. sanctioned Venezuela’s former head of Social Security Institute, which is responsible for providing medicine for chronic illnesses, for the mishandling of the health care system. The lack of order has led to outbreaks of once-controlled diseases, such as measles and diphtheria due to the lack of antibiotics and basic vaccines according to the Wall Street Journal.
Recently, the World Health Organization has expressed their concerns for the rise of Malaria in Venezuela, with cases jumping from 240,613 in 2016 to 406,000 in 2017, 5 times higher than in 2013 according to Aljazeera. Due to lack of funding, the government has also failed to educate and run effective anti-malaria campaigns in order to mitigate the spread of the deadly disease. Pedro Alonso, director of WHO’s global malaria programme said, “[w]hat we are now seeing is a massive increase, probably reaching close to half a million cases per year. These are the largest increases reported anywhere in the world,” according to Aljazeera. It is also worrisome because migrants fleeing to countries such as Brazil and Colombia, could be carrying the mosquito-borne disease with them. WHO is urging authorities to provide free screening and treatment in order to avoid any further spread according to Aljazeera. This health crisis is no longer confined to the nation’s border, it is cause for concern internationally and is an urgent cry for help. Although there have been thousands of people protesting the lack of medicine and supplies, there has yet to be any changes made by the Maduro regime in response. At this point, it is crucial for the international community and the Venezuelan State to start cooperating in order to mitigate the long-term impacts of this crisis.