Medical Shortages Lead To Avoidable Deaths In Venezuela
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
This is how bad things are in Venezuela. A toddler who scrapes her knee can end up fighting for her life. Conditions have been deteriorating in the country for months. There's a shortage of food, water and electricity. Basic treatments like antibiotics are hard to find. Years of economic problems in Venezuela were made worse when oil prices started falling.
Hannah Dreier of the Associated Press has written about what all this meant for a three year old named Ashley Pacheco. She was chasing her brother when she scraped her knee. Hannah Dreier takes the story from there.
HANNAH DREIER: The scraping turned into a staph infection, and because there weren't enough antibiotics to treat what is really a pretty simple infection, it spread to her heart and damaged her knee. Her family had to work for two months to get her that antibiotic, and she got out of the hospital but with permanent damage to her heart and probably a permanent limp.
MCEVERS: And what is it that did it? I mean was it a combination of luck, doctors who cared and just intense perseverance on the part of her parents to go around and scrape together whatever they could to get the drugs she needed?
DREIER: It was really just the effort of her parents. They stopped going to work. They stopped eating. They were eating one meal a day. They sold their phones, their fridge, their television. They were willing to do anything.
And a few times the doctors told them, you know, she needs this, and it just doesn't exist in the country anymore because of the crisis. And her parents just refused to hear that. They said, no, we're going to find it. And in a lot of cases they managed to.
MCEVERS: One of the most harrowing things about this story is while she miraculously survived, there's so many other children around her did not.
DREIER: Right. It felt like she was going through this gauntlet of death at the hospital. I would go and see her every few days. And every time I went, there was a child who was dying of malnutrition or dehydration or some other treatable illness. While I was writing this story, six other kids just on that same floor died because they couldn't get the right antibiotics.
Another child came in who weighed 15 pounds at 4 years old. He died within 12 hours because his family couldn't find the medicine the doctors needed. It's really amazing that this girl got out of this situation with only permanent (laughter) heart damage. The doctors called her a miracle baby.
MCEVERS: Why doesn't Venezuela have the medicines and the equipment that people need to treat sort of seemingly straightforward ailments?
DREIER: So Venezuela is going through a severe economic crisis right now. There are shortages of basic food, basic medicine, electronics. Pretty much everything you can think of is in short supply. And one really strange things that - that's happening here is that the government refuses to take humanitarian aid.
So most countries when they're hit by a crisis, they're taking aid from other countries, from NGOs. But Venezuela keeps refusing to take donations that other countries are offering and is actually turning back shipments of donations that people have given in places like the U.S., not letting medicine in.
DREIER: The government says that there is no crisis here, that political opponents of the socialist revolution are inventing a story about shortages. And the government says they don't need any help. They don't need aid. They're fine, and they call these attempts to get aid in imperialist plots. They say basically it's all a ploy to try to take down the socialist government.
MCEVERS: What do you think can be done to fix this?
DREIER: It's very hard to see a way out of this as things are right now. A lot of people are just giving up. Half of graduating doctors leave the country. Anyone who can really is emigrating. And it looks like it's just going to get worse.
Shortages have been getting steadily worse this year and probably will get worse next year, and without aid, it's just hard to see how we're not going to have a lot more cases like Ashley, a lot more children dying for really no reason.
MCEVERS: Well, Hannah Dreier, thank you so much for your time and for your work.
DREIER: Thank you.
MCEVERS: Associated Press correspondent Hannah Dreier in Caracas - we reached her on Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.