“It’s got nothing to do with politics; it’s a matter of life and death. We’re being persecuted and fighting for our human rights, our lives and our health,” said Mauricio Gutierrez to NBC News. Gutierrez, an LGBT advocate and social worker from Caracas, says the tragic situation has reached new lows and Venezuelans are losing hope.
Due to an economic crisis that has been devastating the country since 2015, there have been major shortages of vital medicines, including antiretrovirals used to treat HIV. But the slow and sporadic deliveries that were happening two years ago have now completely ceased. With a non-existent condom supply and hospitals unable to even test for HIV, Venezuela’s health system is on the verge of collapse.
Positivos en Colectivo (Positive Together) is a non-governmental organization that works with HIV and AIDS patients throughout Caracas. According to them, 85 percent of pharmacies in the capital have run out of medication, and 95 to 100 percent of hospitals in the city have no medicines at all in stock. These numbers are staggering in a country that once boasted some of the best HIV/AIDS programs in the world back in the late ‘90s.
“They hadn’t been seen by any doctors and died because of a lack of medicine, infections and starvation,” said Gutierrez of the thousands who are needlessly dying of HIV-related complications. Especially heartbreaking is the rising death toll among infants, children, and adolescents.
Recently, Gutierrez, who is HIV positive, spent time comforting the family of a 16-year-old boy who had just died. “He had HIV and was so weak when he arrived at the hospital. He was vomiting and bleeding a lot, very emaciated because he hadn’t eaten anything nutritious in weeks,” said Gutierrez. “They carried out no tests and just left him to die without any treatment.”
“The lack of medicine is worrying, but there’s also food shortages,” said Eduardo Franco, spokesperson for the HIV/AIDS foundation, MAVID. “People are dying from hunger because they can’t afford to feed themselves.”
Franco said another problem is the lack of baby formula available for HIV-positive mothers to feed their newborns with — which is crucial to avoid passing the virus via breast milk. “What do they do?” implored Franco. “They either risk giving [their babies] the virus in breast milk, or let them starve.”
Gutierrez says the country’s government is to blame, not its health facilities, pharmacies, or medical professionals. “It’s not their fault… they can’t do anything without proper medication and supplies,” he said. In fact, in May of this year, thousands of fed-up doctors and nurses marched in a protest against Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro. Protesters and health advocates alike blame the current president and his administration for refusing international aid and denying that there’s a crisis at all. “Last year, we asked them to open a humanitarian corridor to allow essential medicines and basic food supplies through, but they refused, so we hold them responsible,” said Gutierrez.
“If you’re sick and go to a hospital in Caracas, all you’ll get — if you’re lucky — is a bed and some saline solution,” said Gutierrez, following one of his regular visits to a hospital. “There's no hope left in Venezuela; it’s getting harder and harder every day.”