As the price of baby formula in Venezuela soars, moms turn to each other for help

Viviana Vargas was worried after her son Mathias was born in April last year. The 30-year-old Venezuelan mother wasn’t able to breastfeed him sufficiently due to stress and other problems, so the 6-pound baby was on the verge of malnutrition.

She and her husband began to look for infant formula, which is pricey and scarce in Venezuela. They found out that a 14-ounce can of powdered formula, good for a week at most, would cost about twice the monthly minimum wage at the time — about 6 million bolívares or $3 on foreign currency black markets.

“We started to go into crisis,” Vargas said. “We had to travel to Maicao [a Colombian town next to the Venezuelan border] to find the right baby formula for Mathias.”

They were lucky. They were able to scrape together the money to buy about $200 worth in several cans, enough to feed the baby at night for six months.

But Vargas wanted to give her baby the healthiest start possible without ruining the family budget. And she found it in an unexpected way. Her boss at an online food delivery company where she works as a sales executive had a sister, the mother of a 6-month-old baby, who volunteered to give Vargas breast milk.

She received frozen breast milk every 15 days, preserved in little plastic bags with the date marked in pen. “Mathias gained the proper weight in just weeks. It was incredible,” Vargas said, holding her baby, now 16 months old, in her arms.

In Venezuela, baby formula has become so expensive for families that some mothers have begun turning to other women for breast milk donations or even to nurse the babies directly.

President Nicolás Maduro’s government eliminated five zeros from the national currency in an attempt to combat wild inflation in Venezuela, but now a medium-size can of imported baby formula costs even more — 3,300 bolívares or about $33 at the black market exchange rate.

And finding formula to buy isn’t easy. It means going to a resale market because it is almost impossible to find in regular supermarkets or pharmacies.

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When Luis Daniel Zavarse was a newborn, his mother in Venezuela obtained breast milk from a relative to feed him when he was hospitalized. With baby formula prices out of reach for many in Venezuela, women are turning to other women for help feeding their babies. Photo courtesy of Zavarse family

Marianella Herrera Cuenca, a sociologist from Central University of Venezuela, heard during her visits to poor and middle-class homes about informal networks of women who were helping other mothers by supplying their children with breast milk when they couldn’t afford to purchase enough formula.

A study by Herrera Cuenca and others at the university into the lives of poor mothers in Venezuela — the results have not yet been released publicly — found that as many as three in 20 mothers are being helped to feed their babies by relatives or friends who supply breast milk.

Herrera Cuenca called it “an increasingly common practice. ... These are survival skills that have been practiced for a thousand years.”

Herrera Cuenca, who is in charge of the nutrition section of an annual life conditions survey, said many low-income families can’t afford baby formula. The latest survey found that 89 percent of Venezuelans don’t even have enough money to buy sufficient food for their families.

Venezuela is caught in a spiral of inflation so catastrophic that the International Monetary Fund predicts the rate will hit 1 million percent by the end of the year.

“We’re living in a hyperinflationary context where monthly incomes are worthless,” Herrera Cuenca said.

That translates into poor nutrition for many. She said 39 percent of Venezuelan kids in underprivileged neighborhoods are not breastfed all the way to the six-month mark — and many are then fed with the water used to cook rice or spaghetti, or with corn flour mixed with cow or goat milk, diets that could make them even more undernourished.

“Those kids have size deficiencies and develop chronic malnutrition. We’re talking about at least 500,000 children with a chronic deficit as soon as they start their lives,” she said.

Elainy Ávila, a 32-year-old architect, has donated her breast milk to six babies while being part of a support group for mothers called Lactaluz. She’s also part of an informal network in recent years that has stretched to cities like Caracas and Maracaibo, where dozens of women have been offering free-of-charge breast milk to mothers to help them feed their malnourished or sick children.

Along with helping the health of babies, the participants also know they are saving the family finances.

“To donate breast milk is to donate life by drops. In the case of Venezuela, it is a matter of life or death,” said Ávila.

Keily Quintini, 37, had fed her first daughter with formula but couldn’t pay today’s costs for the supplement when she had a second baby girl. Her neighbor helped her this time.

“Years ago, we fed Sarah, my oldest, with baby formula, but now to buy only one can is impossible. We can’t afford it,” she said.

Mervin Chávez, a pediatrician and head of the breastfeeding program at the University of Zulia, says that breast milk donors help an average of two to four infants per week at the Children’s Hospital in Maracaibo.

“Most of those kids come from poor families. They’re malnourished. All we need is just one call through our support group and we’ll have breast milk donations within the hour,” the doctor said.

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Dr. Mervin Chávez, a pediatrician and head of the breastfeeding program at the University of Zulia, says that breast milk donors help an average of two to four infants per week at the Children’s Hospital in Maracaibo. Gustavo Ocando Alex Special to the Miami Herald

Only healthy women, without diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, can donate, but there are generally at least 25 mothers willing to donate breast milk from Lactaluz alone, members of the group said.

Nelson Faría, a pediatrician who works with newborns at the Policlinica Maracaibo, said he has received recent calls from middle-class patients in despair because they can no longer afford baby formulas.

“Breast milk is necessary in Venezuela, especially in this severe crisis. It has all the greatest benefits for babies and the best thing is that it is free,” he said.

At 33, Ninette Noetzlin, a Venezuelan kindergarten teacher with a 1-year-old son, has nurtured dozens of babies she has never known.

“I have helped five babies near to my family and friends, but also every 15 days I give my pediatrician 5-pound sacks filled with little breast milk bags so he can choose the most needy of his patients so they can use it,” she said.

Mothers can be temporarily or permanently unable to breastfeed their children due to physical incapacity, health complications, diseases or drug use.

Patricia Zavarse, 38, got desperate last May when she could not breastfeed her baby, Luis Daniel, while he spent days at the Intensive Care Unit.

She couldn’t feed him because she was receiving daily doses of a drug to treat her high blood pressure. Doctors advised the parents to feed the baby with a specialized formula that was expensive and rarely on store shelves.

“We could not find it anywhere. The doctors even recommended that I and my husband say goodbye to our baby,” Zavarse said.

The solution came through a relative who was breastfeeding her 11-month-old baby. For two weeks, doctors fed the baby with milk from the relative, using a digestive tube.

“That milk helped save our baby’s life,” she said.

Luis Daniel is now a healthy 3-month-old, she said: “It was a miracle.”