Conflict & Justice

Venezuela's latest deadly plight: AIDS

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Doctors react during riots at a rally called by health care workers and opposition activists against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela May 22, 2017.

Credit:

Carlos Barria/Reuters

Venezuela’s AIDS treatment program was once admired around the world.

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Affordable drugs, education for at-risk groups, free condoms all helped control and reduce the country’s HIV epidemic. 

But as Venezuela sinks deeper and deeper into economic turmoil, huge inflation and chronic shortages of supplies means that falling sick can be a death sentence. 

The World spoke with Stephanie Nolen, Latin America correspondent for Canada’s Globe & Mail. More than a decade ago she covered the AIDS pandemic in Africa, and was recently in Venezuela where she she says, "There is nowhere in the world today where people are dying of AIDS at the pace and in the sheer numbers that they are in Venezuela: Even the poorest African countries today have HIV treatment programs." 

Read an excerpt from her piece, "In Venezuela, a once-leading AIDS program lies in ruins" here: 

Juan Coronel was so thin that his kneecaps jutted out like tent poles in his sweatpants. He was 39 when I met him a few weeks ago, with reddish-brown hair that clung to his scalp like a baby’s and deep hollows below his cheekbones. His voice was soft and raspy, and he seemed dazed at his own fragility. “I need to go and look for medicine,” he said, “but I’m having trouble getting around.”

I had not seen a person who looked like Mr. Coronel — a person dying of untreated AIDS — since I covered the pandemic in Africa at its height more than a decade ago. In fact, there is nowhere in the world today where people are dying of AIDS at the pace and in the sheer numbers that they are in Venezuela: Even the poorest African countries today have HIV treatment programs. They still don’t reach everyone, and people are still dying, or getting treatment only after they become very ill — they may come to look as Mr. Coronel did when I met him. But in other countries, they are the exception. Today, in Venezuela, his case is the rule.

Back when I was covering the African epidemic, Venezuela was invoked with admiration: This country has had free, public treatment for HIV since 1999. Its AIDS program was a model for countries throughout the developing world. Venezuela’s socialist government imported affordable generic drugs from India, challenged the patent monopolies of Western pharmaceutical companies and targeted marginalized communities, including sex workers, gay men and transgender people for free condom distribution — while most other countries were still grappling with the shame of HIV.

But Venezuela is now years into a political and economic crisis that began under that same socialist government, implemented by Hugo Chavez. Nationalizations, price and currency controls mean there are chronic shortages, and the once-leading AIDS program is in ruins.

If and when this crisis begins to be resolved, thousands of people will have died needlessly, and this country will once again have an out-of-control HIV epidemic, as it did 30 years ago. Today, there are no HIV tests available in the public system, people are unwittingly spreading the virus to sex partners and pregnant women are passing the virus on to their babies.

The national program is chronically short of drugs, which means that people living with the virus not only aren’t getting treated, they are developing drug-resistant strains of HIV.

Hospitals lack even the most basic drugs to treat the infections that plague patients who can’t get anti-retrovirals. People such as Mr. Coronel are dying from a lack of drugs that cost just pennies a dose.

There are no publicly available condoms, and they are wildly expensive in private pharmacies.

There is no infant formula for HIV-positive women to give their babies to avoid transmitting the virus in breast milk.

I have been reporting on Venezuela’s deepening crisis for four years, and I knew about the state of the health system. But the reality of this AIDS program, which I knew from its excellent reputation, brought home the scale of how far this country has deteriorated. Feliciano Reyna, a veteran activist who founded one of Venezuela’s oldest HIV organizations, Accion Solidaria, recognized my shock. “If you’re not here and you don’t see it, it’s very hard for anyone to believe that any of this is true,” he said.

Read the full story here