The health crisis in Venezuela is approaching levels comparable to the poorest nations, with naked women forced to give birth in a waiting room, patients treated on hospital floors and forecasts that hundreds of thousands of children are at risk of dying from malnutrition.
The alarming scenario also includes a shortage of medicines for treating severe diseases like cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure, and for containing outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as malaria and diphtheria.
Services are very limited in both public hospitals and private clinics, where shortages of supplies have reduced the number of beds available to little more than 25 percent of what the country needs, according to experts.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
But finding a hospital bed is no guarantee that the patient will receive the required treatment because hospitals have less than 5 percent of the supplies and medicines needed to function normally, said Douglas Leon Natera, president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation.
“Any Venezuelan who gets sick here in the country today runs the risk of entering a clinic only to have the relatives leave crying” because “there’s nothing” in many hospitals, Leon Natera told el Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview.
“We have barely 3 or 4 percent of the supplies and medicines [needed], which is really nothing,” he said. “And the showcase hospitals, which receive the most resources, may have only 10 to 12 percent.”
Pummeled by the collapse of the Chavista economic model and low oil prices, the government of President Nicolas Maduro has put strict limits on the importation of food, medicines and other basic goods.
The lack of supplies has reduced the number of available public hospital beds from 47,000 to 18,000. Private clinics have another 7,000 beds, bringing the nationwide total to 25,000.
That’s an extremely low number for a country of 30 million people that should have nearly 100,000 beds available.
The shortage of beds has led to risky practices.
Photos posted on social media of an incident in September showed three pregnant and naked women sitting in a waiting room while they waited at the Pastor Oropesa Riera public hospital in the city of Barquisimeto.
The government was forced to admit that the photos were genuine. “There weren’t enough beds for all the women,” Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas said, explaining why the hospital was forced to turn a waiting room into a delivery room.
Other photos posted on social media showed some patients sleeping in hallways and others receiving treatment while they sat on the bloodstained floors of emergency rooms.
The collapse of the Venezuelan health system is also generating concerns because of a diphtheria outbreak and the absence of a vaccine against the infectious disease.
The PanAmerican Health Organization reported on Thursday that 447 cases of diphtheria, plus seven fatalities due to the disease, had been recorded between the middle of 2016 and the middle of this year.
The numbers is the highest in the region, far above Haiti, which reported 72 cases this year. The disease was declared eliminated in the oil-producing country in 1992.
The numbers on malaria are even worse, Rafael Gottenger, president of the Venezuelan American Medical Association, said from Miami.
“Malaria cases are increasing at an alarming rate. The estimate is that this year we will have 800,000, and one million next year,” said Gottenger, whose organization has long been warning that Venezuela is heading into a humanitarian crisis.
Malaria and diphtheria had both been under control in Venezuela because of a string of preventive measures abandoned in recent years, he added.
The shortage of medicines for treating people already infected means that the lives of thousands of Venezuelans are at risk.
Also at risk are thousands of children now suffering from severe malnutrition.
“We have seen children dying in Caracas from malnutrition. Mothers have nothing to feed their children,” said Gottenger. “I have documented cases. For example, in the El Llanito Hospital [Caracas], at least eight children have died recently from malnutrition. And if that’s the way it is in the capital, how would it be in the rest of the country?”
Caritas, the Catholic charity organizations, has reported that 11.4 percent of Venezuelan children under the age of 5 suffer from moderate or severe malnutrition, higher than the World Health Organization’s mark of 10 percent for declaring a state of emergency.
“We are extremely worried,” said Janeth Marquez, director of Caritas Venezuela.
“Our findings clearly show that the general levels of malnutrition are rising, and have reached crisis proportion for children,” she said. “If we don’t act fast, it will be very difficult for these children to some day return to their growth curve.”
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM