BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela (CNS) — It took Rene Sanchez several hours to scrounge two vials of morphine for his sister, who has terminal cancer.
“My mother called to tell me my sister was screaming from pain,” said Sanchez, who sells stockings and leggings to small shops in this city of 1 million people, about 230 miles west of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.
Pharmacies in the city are filling their shelves with soft drinks, potato chips and homemade natural remedies to cover up the lack of medicines. But Sanchez’s search was successful, thanks to a nurse he knew.
“I know a lot of people aren’t as lucky,” he said.
The economic crisis that has wracked Venezuela since 2014 — when international oil prices dropped, causing government revenue to plummet — has hit sick people and their families especially hard.
The government lacks money to import food and drugs, inflation has topped 200 percent, and the minimum wage does not stretch to buy food, much less medicine.
“Health is our greatest concern,” said Janeth Marquez, national coordinator of Caritas Venezuela, the church’s humanitarian aid agency. “It used to be that five people a day came to our Caracas office to ask for help filling prescriptions for medicine. Now we get 30 a day.”
People who need daily medication for chronic conditions — hypertension, diabetes, epilepsy or mental illness — are especially desperate.
“In the statistics, it looks as though people die because of those illnesses, but they actually die because they don’t have medication for their treatment,” Marquez said.
Sometimes travelers arrive from abroad carrying medications in their luggage, but those small donations cannot meet the vast demand.
On April 28, the Venezuelan bishops’ conference asked the government for official permission to import donations of medication, but so far there has been no response, Marquez said in late May.
“The Venezuelan people’s health is in the worst condition ever,” said Marino Gonzalez, a physician and public health expert at Simon Bolivar University.
Even before the recent economic crisis, Venezuela’s health statistics trailed those of many other Latin American countries. Maternal mortality increased between 1990 and 2013, according to the World Health Organization.
Immunization rates for childhood diseases such as measles and polio are among the lowest in Latin America, and rates of infectious diseases such as dengue and malaria have risen sharply in the past two years, said Gonzalez, who blames poor management and lack of funding for some of the problems.
At $143 per capita annually, according to the World Health Organization, Venezuela’s health spending is among the lowest in Latin America, while patients’ out-of-pocket expenses are among the highest, Gonzalez said.
In 2003, the Venezuelan government established a parallel health care system with new walk-in clinics in poor neighborhoods, staffed with Cuban doctors paid through a deal in which Venezuela swapped oil for health assistance.
But most of the Cuban doctors have left — partly because they were no longer being paid and partly because of violence in the neighborhoods — and the walk-in clinics lack medications, too, Marquez said.
At public hospitals, patients are expected to provide their own supplies, from surgical gloves to anesthetics, and doctors express pain and frustration as they recount stories of patients who died for lack of medications or supplies.
“Fifteen days ago, they brought in a patient who had been shot, and who didn’t have any family member who could buy supplies,” said Jesus Guarecuco, 29, a surgical resident at Barquisimeto’s general hospital. “I couldn’t operate on him because I didn’t have gloves, sutures or sterile supplies. He died seven hours later.”
When they do operate, surgeons often lack diagnostic tools. The general hospital here lacks the chemicals needed to develop X-rays, and the ultrasound equipment is failing, Guarecuco said.
“The government should declare a health emergency,” he said. “We’ve been saying these things publicly. We’re not worried anymore that they’ll fire us. We no longer have anything to lose.”
Although conditions have deteriorated since the drop in international oil prices, some hospital equipment has gone unrepaired for a decade, even though doctors have reported the problems, Guarecuco said.
Other hospital services are suffering, too.
In the kitchen, a small, dark room in the basement with peeling paint and smoke-blackened walls, Jose Perez prepares 900 meals a day for patients with the little food available.
“I’ve never seen as much hunger as I do now,” said Perez, 48, who has worked in the hospital kitchen for 20 years.
But the problems are not entirely due to funding cuts. Down the hall, behind a locked gate, a bright, new kitchen with shiny electric boilers has gone unused for the past eight years, because political rivalry between the regional governor and national officials has blocked its completion.
Meanwhile, the food shortage not only affects patients’ nutrition — it also brings new patients to the hospital.
“Three children came who had been poisoned from eating low-grade rice, a kind of rice that is impure and mixed with excrement, that should only be used for animal feed,” said Yarisma Molero, a pediatric nurse. “The 5-year-old died.”