Cancer, transplant patients protest over Venezuela's medicine shortages
By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS - Venezuelans with chronic medical conditions such as breast cancer, hemophilia and transplants protested in Caracas on Thursday, the latest demonstration to demand urgent medicines in a country beset with shortages.
Around 13,000 people with chronic issues are at risk of severe harm if they do not find chemotherapy or medicines, including those that prevent organ transplants being rejected, according to organizer CodeVida, a non-profit umbrella health group.
A combination of currency controls, slumping domestic production and cross-border smuggling have caused acute shortages of medical supplies in socialist-led Venezuela. With an estimated seven in 10 drugs currently unavailable, rights groups are warning the situation is increasingly untenable.
"The word 'wait' doesn't exist for transplant patients. The medicines are daily. If we don't have them, we collapse," said Alfredo Quintero, 52, who has a transplanted kidney but has medicines to last only until Sept. 6.
"What do they want us to be, a statistic?" he said alongside a few dozen protesters outside a social security pharmaceutical branch meant to supply free medicines.
Demonstrators brandished posters reading "S.O.S. - Venezuelan health is dying." Earlier this month, children suffering from cancer also protested in front of a Caracas hospital over intermittent supply of chemotherapy medicines.
"In the last few months the supply of medicines for people with chronic health issues has worsened. Without these medicines we could see irreversible harm," said CodeVida director Francisco Valencia.
"We're receiving calls from across the country and we don't know what to say because we don't have medicine."
President Nicolas Maduro has framed shortages as part of an "economic war" led by businessmen he accuses of hoarding and smuggling goods.
The government did not reply to requests for comment but Venezuela's Social Security Institute said in a tweet to Reuters later on Thursday that to date this year its high-cost program "has invested 169 million bolivars ($27 million) at strongest exchange rate; $243,000 at black market rate) in treatment for transplant patients. We guarantee treatment for these catastrophic illnesses."
Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, harnessed an oil boom to build free clinics in the slums and health issues such as maternal mortality improved.
But many health statistics have not been published since shortages worsened. Hospitals are overloaded, doctors have left the public sector or the country, and equipment including thermometers and catheters are scarce.
Around 230 breast cancer patients are unable to undergo surgery due to lack of blood, said Luisa Rodriguez, the president of breast cancer group FUNCAMAMA.
"These women are going to see their tumor double in 100 days. There's a risk of death or treatment being extended unnecessarily," said Rodriguez, waving a sign listing a dozen missing medicines.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry