Americas

Venezuela’s health crisis gives rise to benevolent ‘drug mules’

In this Feb. 26, 2016 file photo, Oliver Sanchez, diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, holds a sign with a message that reads in Spanish; "I want to be cured, peace, health" during a protest against the growing shortage of medicines and medical supplies, in Caracas, Venezuela. The eight-year-old boy who had become a symbol of Venezuela's medical crisis, died.
In this Feb. 26, 2016 file photo, Oliver Sanchez, diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, holds a sign with a message that reads in Spanish; "I want to be cured, peace, health" during a protest against the growing shortage of medicines and medical supplies, in Caracas, Venezuela. The eight-year-old boy who had become a symbol of Venezuela's medical crisis, died. AP

About 10 to 15 times a week, Jorge repackages a stash of bright bottles and pills and then broadcasts a message to his network of couriers. There’s always someone willing to carry the package to Venezuela tucked into their luggage or stashed in their carry-on.

There’s nothing illegal about this trafficking operation — it’s prescription medicine on its way to people who desperately need it. But in Venezuela, where such acts of kindness are often seen as a political statement, Jorge wants to remain anonymous.

“It’s simple,” he said of the secrecy. “If you use my name the government might accuse me of being a smuggler or a bachaquero” — the price-gougers who are often the target of the government’s ire. “Everything I say can be used against me.”

It’s no secret that Venezuela lacks just about everything, from chicken to toilet paper to sugar and diapers. But the shortage of life-saving drugs, even over-the-counter medicine, is perhaps the most heartbreaking. And Venezuelans are increasingly dependent on loose networks of people like Jorge, who live abroad, to stay alive.

Empty Shelves

The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela, an industry group, says more than 85 percent of all drugs are either impossible or difficult to find in the country. And while there’s no way to quantify how many people have died due to lack of medicine, anecdotal evidence abounds.

In June, the family of Susana Duijm — an actress and model who won Miss Universe in 1955 — took to Twitter and Instagram pleading for blood-pressure medication after she was hospitalized. She eventually died. In March, an 18-year-old girl died of a shellfish allergy after the hospital she was taken to didn’t have epinephrine or oxygen. And infant mortality has spiked more than 100 percent between 2012 and 2015, often due to lack of basic medical supplies.

The government of Venezuela will not accept that it has a problem.

Freddy Ceballos, president of the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela.

“People here are dying from incredibly stupid ailments,” said Mildred Varela, 45, who has been battling breast cancer since 2014. And for those in need of hard-to-find oncology medicine, stakes are high.

After Varela finished her chemotherapy and radiation treatment last year, she was prescribed letrozole, an inhibitor used to reduce the risk of relapse. But she couldn’t find the medication for three months.

Since then, Varela and 66 other cancer survivors have formed Aconvida, a network that helps its members find medicine either in Venezuela or abroad. The medicine that has been hand-carried from places like Miami, Madrid and Bogotá has been a literal life saver, she said.

“It’s not always the quantity we need and it doesn’t come in with the frequency we need it, but it helps,” she said.

Varela says some of the women have seen their cancer metastasize as they’ve had to postpone or delay treatments due to lack of medicine, but so far no one in her group has died.

The daily pressure of finding medicine is particularly cruel for cancer survivors, who are told to avoid stress during recovery, Varela said.

“How are we supposed to be relaxed in a situation like this? My level of frustration is so high just looking for medicine all the time,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been thrown in the ocean with a stone around my neck.”

Economic Warfare?

The government blames the shortages on everything from “economic warfare” waged by its foes, to Colombian smugglers. Earlier this year, Health Minister Luisana Melo said the real problem was that Venezuelans took too much medicine and she asked her countrymen be more “rational” in their healthcare.

To complicate matters, Venezuela is refusing offers of help, even as the UN last month urged Caracas to “consider accepting humanitarian aid.”

The attitude is perplexing. During the height of its oil boom, Venezuela was one of the region’s most generous countries, sending subsidized oil to its allies and providing billions in aid and investment to troubled countries in the region.

“The government of Venezuela will not accept that it has a problem,” said Freddy Ceballos, the president of the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela, which represents the industry.

Rather than admit that the socialist system has failed, they insist that its corrupt distributors and shadowy forces that are inducing the shortages.

Deep Debt

Ceballos said a combination of draconian price and currency controls have destroyed the industry. The government owes Venezuela’s pharmaceutical sector $5 billion dollars, he said. And without that money, local labs haven’t been able to pay their international suppliers. While Venezuela has 22 pharmaceutical plants, it has to import most of its raw materials, so hard-currency is critical.

Hit by falling oil revenue, Venezuela has been forced to slash its imports. And in a country that produces little else but crude, those cuts are reflected in empty shelves and growing hunger and discontent. Even so, the situation in Venezuela is hard to comprehend, Ceballos said.

“No other petroleum-exporting country has hungry people on the street or is denying their people medicine,” he said.

The pharmaceutical sector has been in negotiations since January. And while the administration occasionally releases money, it’s not enough to cover debts — or reopen supply lines.

“What we need is a change in attitude,” Ceballos said. “Health can’t wait and every day people are dying.”

Urgent Care

It’s that sense of urgency that’s leading people to take the risks of being drug couriers. While it’s not illegal to carry medicine for a specific person, carrying the medicine in bulk — without the approval of Venezuela’s sanitary authorities — can be problematic. Travelers have reported having suitcases full of medicine confiscated at the airport.

Since last year, the Association of Venezuelans in Colombia (Asocvencol) has sent more than a ton of donated medicine across the border. Often it goes in dribs and drabs in luggage, but they recently sent 34 boxes packed with medicine. How they got it into Venezuela, which sealed its land-border with Colombia a year ago, they won’t say.

“Because Venezuela denies that it needs anything, there’s always the fear that it could be confiscated,” said the organization’s President Daniel Pages. “The reality is they need everything from gauze to aspirin to things that are more complicated, like cancer drugs.”

What’s being sent from abroad is saving many lives, but it’s not going to solve the crisis in Venezuela … We need large-scale humanitarian aid.

Francisco Valencia, kidney recipient

The stories of people dying due to lack of emergency medication usually grab the headlines, but for those with chronic conditions the crisis often grinds on unnoticed. For more than a decade Francisco Valencia and his wife have been reliant on anti-rejection drugs and blood-pressure medicine to protect their transplanted kidneys.

And both those drugs have been increasingly hard to find. Government-run hospitals, where the anti-rejection medicine is supposed to be distributed free, often hand out reduced doses as they try to stretch out supplies, said Valencia, who also works with a coalition patients’ rights group called Codevida.

In that sense, the donations from abroad help cover critical gaps.

“What’s being sent from abroad is saving many lives,” he said. “But it’s not going to solve the crisis in Venezuela … We need large-scale humanitarian aid.”

If Venezuela’s medicinal crisis has political undertones, there’s nothing political about illness. Ascovencol said it has received requests for medicine from people who work in the socialist administration. And Varela, with the cancer group, said her organization is open to everyone.

“Only people who have cancer can understand what we’re going through,” she said. “When you get sick, politics doesn’t matter anymore.”

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