International groups step in to illuminate Venezuela’s health crisis

A Caritas health worker monitors a child for possible malnutrition. (Credit: Caritas Venezuela)

In a country where officials face termination for sharing government health statistics, health experts are relying on outside organizations to shed light on the ongoing health crisis in Venezuela.

In its fourth year of a crippling recession, Venezuela is suffering widespread shortages of medicines and basic medical equipment. A leading pharmaceutical association has said that roughly 85 percent of the country’s medicine supplies are running dry.

With widespread food shortages and an inflation rate of more than 700 percent, millions of Venezuelans are struggling to feed themselves and their families.

Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis has been monitoring levels of malnutrition across four states, including the capital Caracas, since October. It found that 11.4 percent of children under 5 are suffering from moderate or severe acute malnutrition. That figure rises to 48 percent when under-5s at risk or already suffering lower levels of malnutrition are included, according to a report released earlier this week.

By World Health Organization standards, Caritas’ findings constitute a crisis that calls for the government to marshal extraordinary aid.

Still, Venezuelan authorities have so far resisted offers of food and aid from abroad.

“Here, for the government, there are no malnourished children,” Livia Machado, a physician and child malnutrition expert, said in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. “The reality is this is an epidemic, and everyone should be paying attention to this.”

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For the most part, the government appears to be ignoring the health crisis, apart from occasional statements from President Nicolas Maduro. He blames the ongoing medicine shortages on the opposition, which he claims has been hoarding medicines to encourage a coup against him.

His government is limiting the sharing of data that would quantify the scope of the problem.
Which is why it was unusual that earlier this month the Venezuelan Health Ministry released its first report since July 2015. The report painted an alarming picture: a steep rise in infant and maternal mortality rates and a sharp rise in illnesses such as diphtheria, Zika and malaria.
That reporting came at a cost. Just a few days later, the government announced it was sacking Antonieta Caporale, a gynecologist who held the post of health minister for four months. Vice President Tareck El Aissami announced the move on Twitter without citing a reason for the firing.
With no government statistics available, the task of gathering and releasing data on malnutrition has been picked up by doctors, hospitals, individual health experts, international NGOs and Catholic charities.

“We are extremely worried, which is why we are going public with this series of reports,” Caritas country director Janeth Márquez said in a statement.

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“Our results clearly show that general levels of malnutrition are rising and acute malnutrition in children has crossed the crisis threshold,” she added. “If we don’t respond soon, it will become very difficult for these children ever to get back onto their nutritional growth curve.”

Caritas has been distributing medicines and food kits to fight malnutrition across the country, but says the efforts of in-country actors are insufficient when considering the scope of the crisis. The report shows one in 12 households were eating leftover food from restaurants and rubbish bins – a dire picture an inflation-crippled economy in which a basic food basket now costs 16 times the minimum wage.

“It’s a major crisis and needs national and international help to manage the scale of the disaster at the highest decision-making levels,” Susana Rafalli, a humanitarian specialist in food emergencies working for Caritas in Venezuela, said in a statement. “Livelihoods have been degraded to such an extent, that the very poor have no means to cope – everything has broken down.”

“Jobs, health care, the family, home – poor people have lost everything as they move about in search of a lifeline,” she added. “The humanitarian community and the people of Venezuela need to begin a full-scale response now.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com