By SERGIO HELD, OZY
It’s a tweet that ultimately fell on deaf ears: “#ServicioPublico Infalgan solution of 10 Mg for injection is needed for Vanessa Chacón.” Sent from San Rafael del Piñal, a small town in Venezuela near the border with Colombia, the tweet was sent on behalf of Chacón, 22, who needed the medicine to survive a severe coronary condition. Unfortunately, it’s simply not available there — and isn’t likely to be anytime soon.
“My niece is very sick. We haven’t been able to locate the drug in pharmacies or in hospitals,” says Nelson Jaimes, who’s Chacón’s uncle and, coincidentally, a pharmacist. “We who are inside the pharma business can’t locate the products. What can a regular citizen expect to find?”
In Venezuela, several hundred tweets like this go out every day under the hashtag “#ServicioPublico,” meaning “public service.” But few cries for help are answered, and the country is facing a critical shortage of basic medical supplies. The crisis is only getting worse. A crumbling economy and lack of access to foreign currency (worsened by the recent drop in oil prices) means domestic distributors cannot pay their suppliers. That, in turn, has led international medical suppliers to cut shipments and hold back on maintenance of Venezuela’s health care infrastructure. Bills have piled up to the tune of some $245 million — and that doesn’t include money owed to drug companies, maintenance firms or other health careproviders.
The consequences are being felt across a broad swath of society. Up to 15 percent of the country’s cancer patients are dying due to a lack of radiotherapy treatment, the Venezuelan Society of Oncology and Oncological Radiotherapy has warned. The situation has become so dire that some professionals who used to work with pharma companies say they’ve cut their relationships because there’s just no medicine for the businesses to supply.
Look no further than the shelves in Jaimes’ two pharmacies, which are almost empty. There’s no vitamin C, no folic acid, not even acetaminophen, which is sought after to treat the symptoms of chikungunya, a mosquito-transmitted virus that causes severe joint pain and infected almost 35,000 people last year. And while Jaimes searches for the drug his niece needs, he — and many other business owners — are also struggling to keep their pharmacies afloat. “You must keep the pharmacy open eight hours a day, every day, whether you have anything to sell or not,” he says. “If we close, we lose our licenses.”
Shoppers pass by a shuttered store in the Sambil shopping center in the Chacao section of Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. (Timothy Fadek/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
The country’s government, which did not respond to a request for comment, has said that many Venezuelan-subsidized products, such as medicines, are being smuggled to Colombia and that it is trying to get a handle on the situation. Yet it has alsotaken steps to protect its image. One government directive that Venezuelan health care guilds have criticized warns, “It is strictly prohibited for patients or their families to bring medicines or medical supplies for their treatment, even if hospitals don’t have the necessary supplies.”
“The government is not doing anything to solve this problem, even in a palliative way.”
The government has also banned hospitals from releasing any information about the scarcity of medicine or any weakness in its health care system, and it has even arrested some people, including a patient support group member, for taking pictures of a huge queue outside a pharmacy in Caracas. “The government is not doing anything to solve this problem, even in a palliative way,” says Antonio Orlando, the president of the Venezuelan Association of Distributors of Medical, Odontological and Lab Devices (known as Avedem in Spanish) and a Venezuelan med-tech entrepreneur. “This is nonsense.”
To be sure, some patients are finding a little relief — through other means. Josefa Fernández belongs to an active group of women living abroad in the U.S., Mexico, Colombia and Italy, among other nations, and manages @donatumed, a Twitter account that connects patients to the drugs they require. One young Venezuelan the group helped had lost his eye and hand, and the group was able to raise funds and supplies for him in Houston, Texas. The group also claims to have helped Marisabel Rodríguez, the second wife of late president Hugo Chavez, to get an antibiotic she needed. (In an email, Rodríguez tells OZY that “the medicine wasn’t for me” but notes that “there was a time when I travelled to Colombia and got medicines.”)
But with Venezuela’s crisis deepening, finding drugs has become more complicated by the day. Scam artists who use social media to ask for donations of medicines and then sell them at high prices have surfaced , while groups abroad are taking risks by finding ways to smuggle medicines and supplies into the country — something that is forbidden by Venezuelan law. Without an immediate solution in sight, Jaimes is thinking of making his way to the city of Cúcuta, along the Colombian border. There, he hopes, he’ll find the medicine his niece needs.
An employee stocks produce at a grocery store in Barcelona, Venezuela, on Friday, Feb. 21, 2014. (Juan Carlos Hernandez/Bloomberg via Getty Images