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International groups step in to illuminate Venezuela’s health crisis

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.”

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 Twitterwithout 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.

“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.”

Venezuela's infant mortality, maternal mortality and malaria cases soar

Country’s economic crisis takes heavy toll on public health, with infant death rate up 30%, maternal mortality up 65%, and malaria cases up 76% in 2016

 A woman shouts slogans in front of police during a rally of health workers and opposition supporters, amid a shortage of medical supplies. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Global development is supported by

Reuters in Caracas

Tuesday 9 May 2017 15.11 EDTLast modified on Thursday 1 June 2017 13.38 EDT

Venezuela’s infant mortality rose 30% last year, maternal mortality shot up 65% and cases of malaria jumped 76%, according to government data, sharp increases reflecting how the country’s deep economic crisis has hammered at citizens’ health.

The statistics, issued on an official website after nearly two years of data silence from President Nicolás Maduro’s leftist government, also showed a jump in illnesses such as diphtheria and Zika. It was not immediately clear when the ministry had posted the data, although local media reported on the statistics on Tuesday.

‘Like doctors in a war’: inside Venezuela’s healthcare crisis

Recession and currency controls in the oil-exporting South American country have slashed both local production and imports of foreign goods, and Venezuelans are facing shortages of everything from rice to vaccines. The opposition has organized weeks of protests against Maduro, accusing him of dictatorial rule and calling for elections.

In the health sector, doctors have emigrated in droves, pharmacy shelves are empty, and patients have to settle for second-rate treatment or none at all. A leading pharmaceutical association has said roughly 85% of medicines are running short.

The health ministry had stopped releasing figures after July 2015, amid a wider data blackout.

Its statistics for 2016 showed infant mortality, or deaths of children aged 0-1, climbed 30.12% to 11,466 cases last year. The report cited neonatal sepsis, pneumonia, respiratory distress syndrome, and prematurity as the main causes.

Hospitals often lack basic equipment such as incubators, and pregnant women are struggling to eat well, including taking folic acid, factors that can affect a baby’s health.

Maternal mortality, or death while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of a pregnancy, was also up, rising 65.79% to 756 deaths, the report said.

The health ministry did not respond to a request for further information. Maduro’s government says a coup-mongering elite is hoarding medicines to stoke unrest.

Diphtheria, a bacterial infection that is fatal in 5-10% of cases and that Venezuelahad controlled in the 1990s, affected 324 people, the data showed – up from no cases the previous year.

Diphtheria was once a major global cause of child death but is now increasingly rare thanks to immunizations, and its return showed how vulnerable the country is to health risks.

'Everyone is catching it': Venezuelans fear the worst as Zika infections rise

Reuters documented the case of a nine-year-old girl, Eliannys Vivas, who died of diphtheria earlier this year after being misdiagnosed with asthma, in part because there were no instruments to examine her throat. She was shuttled around several run-down hospitals.

There were also 240,613 cases of malaria last year, up 76.4% compared with 2015, with most cases of the mosquito-borne disease reported in Bolivar state.

Cases of Zika rose to 59,348 from 71 in 2015, reflecting the spread of the mosquito-borne virus around Latin America last year. There was no data for likely Zika-linked microcephaly, in which babies are born with small heads, although doctors say there have been at least several dozen cases.