Image: Pregnant women lay on beds without sheets during their labour at a maternity hospital in Maracaibo, Venezuela June 19, 2015. REUTERS/Isaac Urrutia
By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s infant mortality rose 30 percent last year, maternal mortality shot up 65 percent and cases of malaria jumped 76 percent, according to government data, sharp increases reflecting how the country’s deep economic crisis has hammered at citizens’ health.
The statistics, issued on the ministry’s website after nearly two years of data silence from President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government, also showed a jump in illnesses such as diphtheria and Zika. It was not immediately clear when the ministry posted the data, although local media reported on the statistics on Tuesday.
Recession and currency controls in the oil-exporting South American nation have slashed both local production and imports of foreign goods, and Venezuelans are facing shortages of everything from rice to vaccines. The opposition has organized weeks of protests against Maduro, accusing him of dictatorial rule and calling for elections.
In the health sector, doctors have emigrated in droves and patients have to settle for second-rate treatment or none at all. A leading pharmaceutical association has said roughly 85 percent of medicines are running short. Venezuelans often barter medicine, post pleas on social media, travel to neighboring countries if they can afford it, or line up for hours at pharmacies.
The Health Ministry had stopped releasing figures after July 2015, amid a wider data blackout. It was not clear why it published this latest batch of data.
Its statistics for 2016 showed infant mortality, or death of children aged 0-1, climbed 30.12 percent to 11,466 cases last year. The report cited neonatal sepsis, pneumonia, respiratory distress syndrome, and prematurity as the main causes.
Hospitals often lack basic equipment like incubators, and pregnant women are struggling to eat well, including taking folic acid, factors that can affect a baby’s health.
(To read the story on Venezuelan women seeking sterilizations as crisis sours child-rearing, click http://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-sterilizations-idUSKCN10E1NK)
Maternal mortality, or death while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of a pregnancy, was also up, rising 65.79 percent to 756 deaths, the report said.
The Health Ministry did not respond to a request for further information. Maduro’s government says a coup-mongering elite is hoarding medicines to stoke unrest.
While Venezuelans are acutely aware of the country’s health issues, the ministry’s statistics bulletin shocked some in the medical community.
“The striking part is turmoil in almost all the categories that this bulletin addresses, with particularly significant increases in the infant and maternal health categories,” said Dr. Julio Castro, an infectious disease specialist and an outspoken critic of the government’s health policies.
Doctors say the health bulletins, meant to be released weekly, should be published in a timely fashion to alert medical practitioners to national trends and threats.
Venezuela, for instance, had controlled diphtheria, a bacterial infection that is fatal in 5 to 10 percent of cases, in the 1990s. Doctors last year sounded the alarm that it had returned, but the government initially said there were no proven cases and admonished those seeking to spread “panic.”
The data now shows diphtheria affected 324 people – up from no cases the previous year.
Diphtheria was once a major global cause of child death but is now increasingly rare thanks to immunizations, and its return showed how vulnerable the country is to health risks.
Reuters documented the case of a 9-year-old girl, Eliannys Vivas, who died of diphtheria earlier this year after being misdiagnosed with asthma, in part because there were no instruments to examine her throat, and shuttled around several run-down hospitals.
(For a story on “Venezuelan girl’s diphtheria death highlights country’s health crisis”, click http://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-health-idUSKBN15P1DA)
There were also 240,613 cases of malaria last year, up 76.4 percent compared with 2015, with most cases of the mosquito-borne disease reported in the rough-and-tumble Bolivar state.
Cases of Zika rose to 59,348 from 71 in 2015, reflecting the spread of the mosquito-borne virus around Latin America last year. There was no data for likely Zika-linked microcephaly, where babies are born with small heads, although doctors say there have been at least several dozen cases.
(To read the story on “Amid government silence, Venezuela’s microcephaly babies struggle”, click http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-zika-venezuela-idUSKBN12H1NY)
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Girish Gupta and Frances Kerry)