Sick in Venezuela? Line Up for the Pharmacy Tour

Many in Venezuela are forced to search multiple pharmacies to try and find the medication they need.
Many in Venezuela are forced to search multiple pharmacies to try and find the medication they need.  (Johanna Villasmil)

EspañolThousands of Venezuelans leave their homes every day to embark on the “pharmacy tour” — a frustrating search for medicines, ranging from basic supplies to medication people with life-threatening illnesses need to stay alive.

The brand and type may vary, but exchange-rate controls and price regulations on medication have affected them all equally. In the interior of the country, as many as 70 percent of pharmacy products are absent from shelves, while even residents of the capital struggle to find up to 60 percent of the medicines they need.

The PanAm Post spoke with multiple consumers who reported having to visit over four separate pharmacies on average in an attempt to secure medical supplies.

In the western city of Barquisimeto, the PanAm Post encountered María Isabel Camacho, 46, who was desperately searching for products to help alleviate the symptoms of her breast cancer. Social security authorities are tasked with providing the necessary medication for her chemotherapy, but Camacho has to find other essential medicines, including steroids and products to limit the process’s side-effects, which include vomiting and severe pain.

“I’ve had to ask all my family to begin looking all around the city for my medicines, and I’ve delayed several cycles of chemotherapy because I haven’t been able to find them.”

Also in Barquismeto, 19-year-old Marcela Agüero has previously had an operation for thyroid cancer. She now depends on Euthyrox to stay alive, a drug which fulfills the organ’s function in relation to the blood, heart, muscles, and skeleton. Agüero has been unable to take the necessary dosage for a month and a half, with her prescription all but impossible to find in shops.

Las medicinas de alto costo que provee el Seguro Social venezolano también desaparecen a pesar de que el Gobierno informa sobre la compra de los mismo. (Sala de Información)
High-cost medicines essential for the treatment of life-threatening illnesses are also in short supply, despite government efforts to secure them. (Sala de Información)

The shortage of medicines has a domino effect. On Thursday, February 19, Venezuelan daily El Nacional reported that the crisis in health resources had caused the temporary suspension of the oral surgery postgraduate course offered by the Dentistry Department of Venezuela’s Central University. The program requires some 280 resources, without which professionals and trainees can’t continue to operate.

The shortage is also affecting the viability of many pharmacy businesses. “It’s really difficult to listen to people’s needs, and the urgency with which they need their medication, knowing that you can’t do anything to help them, because the item hasn’t appeared for months and there’s no hope of it coming back,” pharmacy worker Carmen Méndez told the PanAm Post.

Desperate Measures

The crisis has been met with various attempts by desperate Venezuelans to secure medicines, including the intervention of charitable groups. In October 2013, local NGO the Heart Foundation created a Medicines Bank in the industrial hub of Valencia, some 150 kilometers southwest of Caracas. Residents are invited to donate unwanted medical supplies to distribution centers around the city.

The foundation updates lists of the medicines it has in stock weekly. “In the last 10 months, people have donated around 7,600 medicines, and we currently have 7,500 in the inventory. We supply people with around 1,500 items of medication per month,” Heart Foundation President Rifat Richani told the PanAm Post.

Other Venezuelans have taken to social media to extend their search nationwide, especially those unable to find medication they need to stay alive.

“Urgent: Williannys Avila, 15 years old, with acute lymphoblastic leukemia requires medication. Telephone: 04128995443.”

“Urgently requesting the following medication for a patient with ischemic heart disease. Help is appreciated.”

Behind the Crisis

Freddy Ceballos, president of the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation (Fefarvenreported that scarcity of medical supplies had reached 70 percent in the interior of the country, representing a critical situation for the health sector.

Ceballos explained that the national pharmaceutical industry has a debt of US$3.2 billion to suppliers, which it hasn’t been able to pay due to the latest official liquidation of exchange rates in November and December 2014. The senior industry figure argued that the government should introduce payment for transactions in foreign currency in a planned and systematic fashion.

“Planning and production should be centered in the pharmaceutical industry, but with the outlook of uncertainty produced by the foreign currency reserves situation, increases in production costs, and more, this doesn’t happen in Venezuela,” Ceballos told local channel Venevisión in an interview.

Price regulations for certain medicines in force since 2003 have impeded the ability of chains to cover production costs, he added.

“There are regulated medicines that don’t even earn back the price of the box they’re sold in,” Ceballos stated, adding that he had asked the government to revise prices on an ongoing basis. Between 2003 and May 2014, accumulated inflation in Venezuela reached 1,320 percent, according to the calculations of Venezuelan economist Jesús Cacique.

Venezuelan pharmacist Jonathan Osorio told the PanAm Post that pharmaceutical companies operating in Venezuela need to send sales requests to their suppliers far in advance. The delay of state authorities in assigning foreign currency reserves, he said, prevents companies from complying with scheduled purchases and supplying the market according to demand.

“Between one manufacturing cycle and another there can be a lapse of six months, and if there’s a shortage due to high consumption during this period, there’s no way to replace the inventories,” he added.

Osorio said that the delay in distributing reserves to partner companies responsible for the production of packaging and accompanying items also lead to additional delays, further extending the time it takes for products to reach shelves across the country.

According the pharmaceutical expert’s opinion, greater flexibility in medical imports is unlikely to improve the current situation, due to the relatively high standards of Venezuelan products compared to cheaper alternatives available abroad.

“Allowing the entry of medicines that don’t have the same standards of quality as those sold in Venezuela would be a bad idea,” he argued, adding that a better solution would be “to allow laboratories and their partner companies to access dollars much more quickly so they can rely on consistent production.”

Elisa Vásquez contributed to this article.  Translated by Laurie Blair.

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