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Venezuela: Severe medicine shortages add to growing crisis

As Venezuela enters its second month of daily protests against President Nicolás Maduro's government, the shortage of medication has continued.

As Venezuela enters its second month of daily protests against President Nicolás Maduro’s government, the shortage of medication throughout the country has continued.

For those injured in the latest round of protests, medication and treatment have been hard to come by. Families of injured protesters, government supporters and security officials have often had to raise money to buy marked-up medications on the black market.

An October Human Rights Watch report found “severe shortages” of basic medications – such as antibiotics, painkillers and anti-seizure medicines – reported at many Venezuelan hospitals.

The crowded emergency room at the University Hospital Luis Razetti in Barcelona. Photo credit: Meridith Kohut

In another widely reported scenario, relatives of patients have been given only lists of medications and supplies for their loved one’s treatment as hospitals throughout the country simply no longer have them available.

People in need of specialized healthcare are among those who suffer the most. Patients who have received organ transplants are unable to receive the immunosuppressant drug therapy needed to help the body accept the new organ.

According to the Coalition of Organizations for the Right to Health and Life, there are at least 3,500 transplant patients at risk due to the shortage of immunosuppressants. The director of CODEVIDA said the medication tacrolimus is completely unavailable, while cyclosporine is not available in 25mg or 50mg doses.

The Venezuelan Institute of Social Insurance, a government-run entity, is the only authorized supplier for many specialty medications. IVSS has been reporting extreme shortages of immunosuppressants and drugs used for cancer patients going through chemotherapy, if they are available at all.

The government’s response

For much of the crisis, Maduro has vehemently denied Venezuela has a problem.

Maduro rejected a bill that the opposition-controlled legislature passed in February 2016 that requested international aid. This would have sought to enroll the country in a World Health Organization program to receive medical supplies.

In May 2016, Maduro turned down the opposition’s declaration of a health emergency and attempts to import medical supplies and medicines from other countries.

I doubt that anywhere in the world, except in Cuba, there exists a better health system than this one.

President Nicolás Maduro

Maduro denounced the legislation as an attempt to privatize the hospital system.

Instead, Maduro issued a state of emergency, claiming the United States and his country’s opposition leaders were working together to plot a coup against him. Details of his accusations were not given.

Venezuela has a reputation for being wary of international aid. A June 2016 Amnesty International report found that the unwillingness to accept aid is putting the lives of millions of people at risk.

Stubborn politics are seriously affecting millions of lives. The lethal combination of severe food and medicine shortages coupled with sky-high crime rates, persistent human rights violations and ill-conceived policies that focus on trying to keep people quiet instead of responding to their desperate calls for help are a recipe for an epic catastrophe.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

Bringing aid to Venezuela

Some NGOs have been blocked from bringing in supplies to Venezuela if the government views them as supporting Maduro’s opposition.

Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, collected 100 tons of medical supplies from Venezuelan expats around the world. But the supplies remain stuck in warehouses, unable to enter the country due to a lack of import permits.

However, some organizations have had luck in getting Maduro’s government to allow donations.

Ana Isabel Otero, founder of Comparte Por Una Vida (Share for a Life), says her organization has been successful because it has refrained from adding politics to their work.

Ana Isabel Otero, founder of Comparte Por Una Vida. Photo credit: @anaiotero

“We’re not denouncing the government. We’re focusing on trying to help, to resolve a problem,” Otero said. “I hope this can inspire people, and demonstrate that each individual can contribute their grain of sand toward change.”

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