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2016: One of the worst years ever for the Venezuelan Health sector

By Pietro Dionisio
on January 8, 2017

A dramatic 2016 is finally over. In Venezuela, the year brought with it sinking health and social indicators, and 2017 does not bode well either. Previously-eradicated diseases such as malaria and diphtheria have resurfaced. Maternal and pediatric healthcare services are steadily collapsing, and malnourishment among children is on the rise. The Maduro administration is trying to mask numbers, but leaked media reports have made public a real humanitarian crisis.

The year 2016 left in its wake an economic and political crisis in Venezuela which shows no signs of abating. Between 2015 and 2016, the GDP of the country went down by 18% and inflation is expected to exceed 1600% in 2017. The IMF predicts that the country’s economy will shrink by a further 6% in 2017. These are some of are the worst figures in the world, with the exception of Syria, and there’s no data for Syria.

Social programs such as “Barrio Adentro Mission”, a program seeking to provide comprehensive publicly funded health care, dental care, and sports training to poor and marginalized communities, are almost not working. The reasons for this can be many, ranging from the government’s dependency on unstable oil revenues to fund them, to highly centralized and politicized administrative practices, to inadequate training of the health care providers serving low-income areas. In addition, the program may be hampered by the protracted political stalemate between President Nicolás Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition and the failure of the Maduro regime to acknowledge the worsening health and nutrition indicators.

Every day the situation becomes more unsustainable. In response, more and more Venezuelans have decided their future is brighter outside of the country, resulting in an increased exodus of citizens. This could also be, in part, driven by the August reopening of the border with Colombia, which the Venezuelan government had closed two years before due to alleged security concerns. The collapse of oil prices has severely limited the country’s ability to pay for imports, causing shortages of basic household goods and impairing social services, including health services which are barely functional. By 2016, the country’s public hospitals faced shortages of medicines, basic equipment and even food shortages. Lack of electricity and radiology materials impaired the delivery of basic health services and more specialized services such as cancer treatment. It also resulted in higher out of pocket (OOPs) expenditure and the growth of the black market. If this isn’t bad enough, the poor conditions are encouraging qualified medical professionals to immigrate – approximately 15,000 doctors have already left the country between 2015 and 2016.

Along with previously tackled health issues, including maternal and child health, the country also faces new health threats such as Zika. There are approximately 60 confirmed cases of microcephaly in the population today with Venezuela’s Institute of Tropical Medicine estimating numbers to be higher – between 563 and 1,400.  The Venezuelan government, however, has not acknowledged a single case of Zika-related microcephaly in the country. Beyond health warnings and a handful of televised comments about Zika at the start of the year, the leftist Maduro government has largely kept quiet about the virus. Diphtheria, which was eradicated from the national territory 24 years ago, resurfaced, and in just six months 86 cases were recorded, with at least 200 documented by the end of last November. The Venezuelan government’s apparent denial of the resurgence of diphtheria has prompted confusion over the scope of the outbreak and renewed criticism of the Ministry of Health’s lack of transparency. A crumbling health system led to a 63.5% increase in the maternal mortality rate during the time of Maduro’s government.

The challenges facing healthcare and services do not end here. Venezuela was the first nation in the world to be certified by the World Health Organization for eradicating malaria in its most populated areas in 1961. Unfortunately, because of the economic turmoil, malaria has resurfaced in the country with 73,806 cases registered by end July 2016, and 180,000 by October 2016. Eighty percent of these are concentrated in the Bolivar State. Initially the spread of malaria was considered a state secret. The government did not publish epidemiological reports on the disease in the past year, and it said there is no crisis; now the data is too obvious to be denied. In addition, the Bengoa Foundation for Food and Nutrition, through its research projects, estimates that approximately       30% of Venezuelan children suffer from some degree of malnutrition. And if we add those who are at risk of malnutrition, the figure can rise to 40%. The situation forces Venezuelan families to give their children away in a last ditch effort to save them as severe food shortage is mounting.

The situation in Venezuela is getting worse by the day. The government has failed to ensure basic health services to its people. It has failed to provide the public health care system with medicines and supplies. Currency exchange rules and price controls interfere with the import of medicines and health care products, resulting in a grossly inadequate supply of essential medications and medical supplies. Possibly, Maduro is trying to mask the country’s stark state of affairs, but how long can he continue to do this? How many people would have to die before the Venezuelan government will take broad countermeasures? And yet, there is a faint glimmer of hope as global oil prices are rising again after the recent OPEC agreement but the ongoing failure of the Maduro administration to accept external aid to facilitate the population’s access to essential stuff is really putting a strain on the population.

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