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Ebola Outbreak Would Be Death Knell for Venezuela

By: María Teresa Romero - @mt_romero - Nov 3, 2014, 10:01 am
In Latin America, Venezuela is among the most vulnerable countries to an Ebola outbreak.
In Latin America, Venezuela is among the most vulnerable countries to an Ebola outbreak. (DG Echo/ Flickr)

EspañolAs outbreaks outside of central and western Africa become increasingly common in places like the United States and Spain, the question of how Venezuela would react to Ebola needs to be asked.

The possibility that someone in our country could contract this terrible, deadly virus is very concerning, given the precarious state of public health, and the severe shortage of medication, supplies, and properly trained health-care professionals.

Beyond the words of the minister of health and the vice minister of hospitals regarding the implementation of Ebola protocols, the recent meeting of the ministers of health from ALBA member countries in Havana, or Nicolás Maduro’s grandiose declarations at the most recent United Nations General Assembly — where he offered US$5 million in aid in African countries, along with Venezuelan medical personnel — we must ask if we are prepared to combat a potential Ebola outbreak.

By the same token, when the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that “countries refer infected patients to designated hospitals and laboratories,” we must ask: where are those hospitals in Venezuela?

The horrible state of Venezuelan health care — where the lack of basic supplies, water, and electricity is the norm — has led to a number of health care worker strikes, which state security forces have suppressed. José Manuel Olivares, a doctor and representative of the Justice First party, recently made a public call for the Venezuelan minister of health to account for the current state of the infamous University Hospital of Caracas, where 54 Venezuelans have died due to a lack of supplies.

The serious hospital and health crisis in Venezuela — a situation that has worsened during the Maduro regime — has drawn a number of complaints and condemnations from professional associations (medical hospital societies, the Venezuelan School of Pharmaceuticals, the Venezuelan Society of Mastology), academics (the National Academy of Medicine, the Network of Venezuelan Medical Scientific Societies), and patient and human-rights groups (the Venezuelan Society of Hemophilia, HIV activists, transplant patients, the Venezuelan Program of Education-Action in Human Rights, Transparency International).

It has also drawn the ire of service institutions like the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Chamber, the Venezuelan Chamber of Drug Stores, the Venezuelan Association of Medical Equipment Distributors, and the Venezuelan Association of Private Hospitals and Clinics.

The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) has also denounced the grave situation and called on the government to take immediate action to bring an end to the dangerous and unjust deterioration of basic health services, both public and private.

But government authorities have not properly handled these concerns. The gradual reduction in investment in public health is evidence of the Bolivarian regime’s lack of interest in health care, as opposition leaders have noted. As of August 2014, only US$100 million had been allocated for the provision of medical and surgical equipment for public and private medical facilities. Currently, 38 percent of those facilities do not have operating rooms.

This is a very difficult situation to resolve in the short term, since it is rooted in broader political, economic, and social issues. The lack of medicine and supplies is related to importation issues, since the government controls the currency exchange market and delays monetary authorizations. Obtaining necessary materials requires a continuous flow of currency, given Venezuela produces virtually none these products domestically.

This deplorable public health situation has already resulted in widespread outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya. These illnesses continue to wreak havoc on the Venezuelan population, since the government has not been able to provide even the most basic forms of treatment, nor conduct simple blood tests to detect the illness.

The truth is that Venezuela is one of the most vulnerable countries in Latin America with regard to public health, and therefore most susceptible to an epidemic of this nature. If the Ebola virus reaches Venezuela, it will lead to an enormous national and regional tragedy.

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood.

María Teresa Romero María Teresa Romero

Romero is a journalist with a PhD in political science, specializing in international politics. She's a professor at the Central University of Venezuela, a columnist in several Venezuelan and international newspapers, and the author of several books. Follow her at @MT_romero.