Venezuela crisis cuts deep at children’s hospital


CARACAS — Eight-year-old Luisito is awaiting surgery for a brain tumor, a daunting prospect at the best of times — but this is Venezuela, and the hospital, typically, has little medicine or functioning equipment.

A four-month-old baby shares his nine square meter hospital room. She suffers from an abnormally large head, or macrocephaly, and needs a drainage valve.

The hospital doesn’t have one.

The resulting fluid accumulation has left the baby girl’s head the size of a basketball.

Anthony, aged seven, also shares this tight space. Following surgery, the wound on his back worsened, for lack of clean dressings either at the hospital or in local pharmacies.

The litany of avoidable suffering is repeated from one ward to the next at the J.M. de los Rios Children’s Hospital in downtown Caracas. Venezuela’s Pharmaceutical Federation says just 20 percent of the drugs and medical equipment needed in hospitals and pharmacies across the oil-rich state are available.

Chronic shortages of medicines as well as basic foodstuffs have been a wearying consequence of Venezuela’s crippling years-long economic crisis, blamed by the international community on President Nicolas Maduro, who is seeking a second six-year term in elections on Sunday.

Medical materials can be bought over the internet, but in dollars only — a currency inaccessible for the grandmothers of these children from families of modest means.

“We don’t have dollars. We have our backs to the wall,” said Maria Silva, watching over little Anthony and his spreading wound.

With better equipment, these cases could be easily treated, according to their doctor, Edgar Sotillo.

“We don’t have drugs...I have patients who are suffering from hydrocephalus (a build-up of fluid on the brain) and are waiting for a valve,” said Sotillo.

“We are seeing cases of chickenpox, tuberculosis, malaria, scabies. Sometimes the hospital has no water. If patients contract infections, there are no antibiotics and their situation worsens,” said the doctor.

Blaming his country’s woes on an “economic war” being waged by the United States, the socialist Maduro has promised to fix the situation soon.

But Yuriangela, 16, has no time to wait. Suffering from lung cancer, she is waiting for her next round of chemotherapy.

Her mother, Sujer, weeps helplessly and does not know if she will be able to find the treatment her daughter needs. For chronic diseases such as cancer, nearly all — 95 percent — of the drugs needed for treatment are not available.

“She needs to have 17 chemo sessions,” she said, adding that her family had to buy the medicine she needed abroad. “We don’t have the means, but we have received help.”

Next door, four-year-old Luana cuts out the letters from a printed alphabet while waiting for treatment for a brain tumor.

“For two months, we have not been able to get chemotherapy. It is the responsibility of the people who govern, who only take any notice of us when we demonstrate,” said her mother, Rosa.

Demonstrations to draw attention to the plight of the health service are frequent, whether by doctors, their patients with HIV, or the disabled.

On this cancer ward, devices for medical imaging like MRI machines and radiotherapy equipment are out of order.

“We cannot operate because of the lack of equipment,” one woman doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We have had patients whose conditions improved, but subsequently, for lack of medicine, they deteriorated and died.” — AFP