Venezuelan HIV crisis.

Radio 4 recently featured a documentary which was talking about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. It was specifically referencing the medical crisis that was and has been developing in the country over the last few years. The documentary started by having testimonies from people that were affected by the crises personally and it broadcast harrowing stories about the loss of life and the potential loss of loved ones because of the lack of medication people are struggling to obtain in the country. I sat listening to stories of mothers losing their children as statistics were rolled off about infant mortality, harrowing accounts about the death rates of mothers in child birth and other terrible testimonies of people who cannot obtain haemophilia medication and the worry they face at the thought of even bruising themselves.

This crisis is something that has been developing for the last few years with Venezuela coming into its fourth year of recession, with no signs of it slowing down any time soon. The Fox news agency reports that ‘triple digit inflation and a decaying socialist economic model have left obtaining medication, even simple anti-inflammatories, out of the reach for most Venezuelans’

However, it is not just medication that the country struggles to obtain, they are also struggling to acquire food. Venezuela is in a situation where it cannot afford to pay to in port goods, such as food and medication because according to Marilia Brochetto at CNN, ’The government is strapped for cash after years of mismanagement, corruption and lack of investment in its oil fields’ . This is not the only article where the government is blamed for the mismanagement of the countries economics and political parties are blaming each other for the state of the country’s finances. The UPI website states that the opposition blames the governments inaction for exacerbating the countries health crisis were as the countries Prime Minister, Nicolás Maduro, blames the opposition and pro-capitalist companies that side the United States, as being the ones to blame.

The situation is such that regardless of the recriminations, a once rich country with wealthy oil reserves is seeing a plummet in oil prices, a socialist system that is not working for the masses and recriminations of mismanagement which are all adding to the countries peoples suffering. It is being reported that people are going without food and the country is seeing a sharp rise in malnutrition cases, of which the Venezuelan newspapers have dubbed the Maduro diet. Photo’s are coming out of the country showing people queuing for the basic food items, for hours at a time with the queues stretching for as far as the eye can see. Indeed, even Maduro has said that …’doing without makes you tough’ . That quote, however, will not comfort the parents of the 27 reported children, thus far, that have died from hunger. The figure quoted by the media for infant mortality for 2016 was 11,466 cases that cite causes of death as pneumonia, respiratory distress and neonatal sepsis. This comes after the health ministry stopped releasing figures in 2015 amid a data blackout .

Reports vary in various international news agency reports regarding statistics of the countries sick and dying, due to the data blackout by the government. Johnathan Watts, a reporter for the guardian quotes a doctor at one of the countries hospitals as stating that …’we are back in the dark ages in this country. Every day there is a tragedy. Everyday children are dying’ . Infant mortality has risen by 30% with maternal mortality rising by 65% according to the only official government statistics that have been released from pressure from the Human Rights Watch .

As the documentary continued with testimonies, the reporter interviewed an American charity that was supplying HIV medication to people who otherwise would have had no access to the lifesaving drug. This peaked my interest and I started to investigate the situation in Venezuela with regards HIV medication because other than this report of radio 4, I had heard nothing of the crisis that is unfolding there.

One report from the Venezuela society of infectious diseases, or SVI gave a warning that….’the lives of HIV patients are in danger due to shortages of medication and unscheduled treatment changes that make HIV/AIDS, impossible to control’ . Feliciano Reyna Ganteaume who works for a Caracas based charity called Accione Solidaria which sources and distributes HIV medication to those patients whose supply has stopped or has dried up, states that the ‘Situation is much worse than one can describe’ .

The website Advert.org currently states that 110,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in Venezuela with 5600 new cases being diagnosed in 2015 alone. However, stating that this statistic has remained relatively steady in recent years they contrast this to the number of deaths from AIDS related illnesses, which has nearly doubled from 1700 in 2010 to 3300 in 2015 . To add to these statistics, a recent study by Accione Solidaria reports that Anti- retroviral shortage is affecting 80% of those taking the medication .

I cannot help but think about the quote from the doctor in the Caracas hospital who said that ‘every day there is a tragedy’ and relate those tragedies to the deaths of those from AIDS related diseases that the people of Venezuela are succumbing to. A tragedy, is something that should not have happened, it is a disaster or a fatal event or affair. The fact that charities and medical groups are reporting that the country is suffering from severe stockouts of anti-retroviral treatments with 80% of people needing medication affected, is putting more people’s lives at risk. This is the tragedy. Going months without treatment is giving the virus more opportunity to become resistant to the drug, should treatment then become available. I cannot imagine how hard it is going without medication for a chronic disease for months at a time knowing that that medication is the only thing that is saving my life and keeping me healthy and then when the drug is actually available after months of going without, finding out that your body has become resistant to that particular drug and you are going to have to wait even longer until a different anti-retroviral becomes available to see if that treatment works for you. The anguish of trailing a new drug and the hope that your body doesn’t have any side effects so that you can carry on with your life as normal.

Nicolás Moduro and his government have constantly refused to obtain international help in order to help Venezuela with its economic crisis. Maduro not only refuses to ask for international aid, but has also showed no interest in taking measures to remedy the extreme scarcity of basic products. In fact, the government of Venezuela has vehemently denied the extent of the need for help and has blocked efforts of the opposition led national assemble to seek international aid. Peru are calling for a bloc of all countries to pressure Maduro into accepting international aid, something which he constantly refuses to do, according to the New York times. who have also reported that the South American trade agreement has threatened to bloc Venezuela, due to humanitarian violations .

Maduro insists that international aid is not needed particularly when it comes to medication with him quoted as saying “I doubt there is anywhere in the world, with the exception of Cuba, with a better health system than this one .” However, the shortage of Anti-Retroviral drugs means that Venezuela does not have control of the virus, making it impossible to manage the epidemic. The UPI website states that ‘Currently, Venezuela does not have any HIV treatment considered first-rate by international guide lines.

However, not only does the country have issues with medication for sexual health but it also has shortages with the equipment needed to control and monitor sexual health. The country does not have enough condoms, it does not have enough HIV testing kits nor does it have the basic equipment or supplies to diagnose or treat TB. The tests needed to monitor people on treatment are also in short supply, should those people be lucky enough to obtain anti-retroviral medication. USA Today states that ‘The wretched conditions of Venezuela under its Socialist leadership are now worsening the ability of hospitals to treat people, especially patients with HIV .

A number of civil society groups have jointly signed an open letter to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, demanding the situation in Venezuela be recognised as a humanitarian crisis. This comes after a network of Venezuelans living with HIV got together to seek humanitarian aid from the Geneva based Global Fund that helps fund the fight against AIDS, TB and Malaria, due to the medication crisis in their country. After a six month wait for a decision, the global fund denied the network any funding due to the country’s economic standing and wealth. This is not the first time that the Global fund has denied countries that are struggling with HIV treatment, funding, due to the countries economics, Eastern European countries have been denied in the past.

So where does that leave a country that is struggling with HIV like Venezuela? Many charities are working on the ground to supply people with the medication that they need. However, people have to queue to obtain their medication from the charities on a daily basis and this is if the charities have the anti-retroviral drugs that the patients need. Task forces of medical staff working for various charities are often sent to countries to try and obtain free supplies of Anti-Retroviral medication in the hope that wealthier nations have a surplus of medication. However, claims are being made that once generous countries, no longer have the surplus supplies to provide the charities with the medication that they seek and medical staff are coming back to Venezuela empty handed. Many people have been advised to try and buy medication abroad, however, people have reported not being able to afford to travel, let alone afford the cost of medications abroad.

The Venezuelan Network of Positive People (RGV+) believe that the only way that HIV positive people in Venezuela will get through this crisis is by the global fund changing their mind on the humanitarian plea for help. The people who once relied on their government to protect them, have lost faith in the socialist system of rule and have been forced to turn to the Global Fund for help with a leader, Modura who believes that the country has no crises at all and has the best medical system in the world. However, in exceptional and in dire circumstances the Global Fund has in the past, found a way to award emergency relief grants and thus can indeed change their minds and grant aid. The global network of people living with HIV (GNP+) states that ‘it is time that the Global Fund exercise their power to expand their flexibilities and intervene on behalf of the health, safety and wellbeing of people living in HIV in Venezuela’.

The global fund is a slow moving organisation. The initial request for help took six months for a reply to be received with a decision. In that time, more people would have died from an AIDS related illness. The length of time would have seen more patients go without medication for prolonged periods of time, which will have caused their viral loads to have increased and become damaging to their health. Added to the fact that food shortages and water outages are a daily worry, the health of people with chronic illnesses being able to stay healthy, is becoming an increasing worry. Out of desperation, community groups have taken to social media to become active in the need for the Global Fund to change their policy on decisions like that of Venezuela. One such organisation, Amigos de LAC have started a charge.org petition online to try and desperately change the mind of the Global Fund with the hope that it is signed by as many people as possible to help a once rich country from becoming a humanitarian catastrophe. This is the Catastrophe that the world needs to take more notice of.

http://www.change.org/p/global-fund-aids-tb-malaria-help-people-with-hiv-in-venzuela

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