Venezuela: Unusual release of health data reveals soaring infant, maternal mortality rates

A woman holds her sick baby as she waits to see a doctor at a medical center near Petare neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

After two years of data silence, the Venezuelan Health Ministry released public health figures revealing an alarming rise in infant and maternal mortality rates.

The number of women dying in childbirth is on the rise by 65 percent, while child deaths were up 30 percent, according to government data. The statistics also showed a sharp rise in illnesses such as diphtheria, Zika and malaria, which rose by 76 percent.

“The striking part is the turmoil in almost all categories that this bulletin addresses, with particularly significant increases in the infant and maternal health categories,” Julio Castro, an infectious disease specialist and critic of the government’s health policies, told Reuters.

The Health Ministry had stopped releasing figures after July 2015. It was not clear why it published the latest data, which local media picked up on Tuesday.

The figures reflect ongoing shortages of medicine and health services in a country ravaged by economic crisis. Following a warning from Venezuela’s Medical Federation, which said hospitals had less than 5 percent of the medicine they needed, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in March asked the United Nations to help boost supplies of medicine.

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Still, the country’s stockpiles of basic medicines are rapidly running dry. Without adequate supplies of vaccines, Venezuela is now grappling with the resurgence of preventable diseases such as diphtheria, which affected 324 people last year, according to this week’s report.

Diphtheria is a highly infectious disease that’s easily preventable with vaccines, but can be deadly if the bacterial toxin enters the bloodstream, leading to heart failure and neurological illnesses. Even with adequate treatment, 5 percent to 10 percent of cases are fatal.

The report also cited 240,613 cases of malaria last year – up 76.4 percent compared with 2015. Cases of Zika rose to 59,348 from 71 in 2015, reflecting the outbreak of the mosquito-borne virus across the region last year.

There was no data for microcephaly, a birth defect thought to be linked to Zika, although doctors say there have been at least several dozen cases.

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The public health crisis has driven many Venezuelans across the border into Brazil or Colombia to buy even basic supplies and treatment in public hospitals. The number of Venezuelans moving to Brazil has increased more than fivefold from 2014, reaching 7,150 during the first 11 months of last year.

Many of these patients arrive malnourished and with several illnesses, some of them as a result of malnutrition. Respiratory and skin diseases, infectious diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and syphilis are common, according to Human Rights Watch.

Venezuela, which has the largest oil reserves in the world, fell into a deep recession several years ago after the collapse of oil prices. Maduro blamed the ensuing health crisis on the opposition, which he claims has been hoarding medicines to encourage a coup against him.

For weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand a new leader to replace a leader they accuse of dictatorial rule.

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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