“A Daunting Situation”: Doctor Zaira Medina Speaks about Venezuela’s Medicine Shortages

In an interview with the radio program “Ajicero” last Friday, Zaira Medina, a doctor and the director of the Pérez de León Hospital in Petare, Caracas, speaks with Carlos Novella and Miguel Denis about current shortages of drugs and medical supplies in Venezuela.

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Medina (left) (Correo del Orinoco)
Medina (left) (Correo del Orinoco)

In an interview with the radio program “Ajicero” last Friday, Zaira Medina, a doctor and the director of the Pérez de León Hospital in Petare, Caracas, speaks with Carlos Novella and Miguel Denis about current shortages of drugs and medical supplies in Venezuela. On the program, Novella and Denis cited several alarming statistics: a scarcity of 22 of 30 drugs to treat cancer and of all medicine for hypertension, epilepsy, and diabetes; a 90% deficit of inhaled anesthetics; and a lack of roughly 95% of materials necessary to treat and operate on patients in emergency rooms throughout the country.

What is your perception of the situation?

As for the medicine shortages, the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela declares that health is a social right, and that it corresponds to the security of the state in accordance with Articles 83, 85, and 86. Yet we are seeing a deficit in medicine ... here we can't forget to add that we continue to be an oil rentier state, closely linked to the capitalist system, because we will not have socialism until we gain independence from transnational corporations, and from the institutional and economic coups of the right wing, which have affected certain transnational pharmaceuticals. Through CADIVI and Sicad I, the government gives preferential dollars to corrupt companies, and that is why we have our current calamity with supplies and medicine. It is so severe that drugs are being sought out for patients with hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, lung diseases -- catastrophic sicknesses. Many of these patients are going all the way to Bogotá [the capital of Colombia] to bring them back to Venezuela. In this situation, we have to ask ourselves, is the Bolivarian State really checking to whom it is giving its dollars? How many corrupt companies have been given dollars? This situation does not have to do with a shortage of corn flour. It has to do with the life and death of a patient, the shortage of drugs necessary to preserve the life of our citizens.

Have you seen a similarly alarming situation in the past 15 years [since Hugo Chavez became president in 1999]?

In my 20 years practicing medicine, and in my 20 years as a revolutionary, I have never seen anything like this, not even during the 2003 oil strike ... This is the first time in my experience as a doctor that I'm witnessing such a daunting situation. There have been deaths due to lack of medicines. We don't have insulin. This doesn't have to do with one particular hospital. This is occurring in all hospitals throughout the country, public as well as private.

You mentioned the actions of transnational pharmaceutical companies. Are there other causes, aside from the irregularities in the importation of medicine, that make the issue more complicated?

The currency situation is such that we cannot block the sun with one finger. But the government should have a normal state, and a state of emergency, and should reach out to the other ALBA countries linked to our nation, to the countries connected with CELAC, in order to declare a state of emergency and receive the necessary resources from these countries. We need to bring medicine to guarantee and preserve life, to be able to fulfill the commitment we have in [Hugo Chavez's] Plan de la Patria, 2013-2019, and to also comply with the constitution. If there was genuine political will, we would be able to do something about this situation. To combat what is occurring today, we have to enact firm measures, to switch the light to red and say that not one more citizen should die in this country, in the door of a hospital or in his or her house, because he or she does not have the proper medicine. I'm currently handling the case of a 17-year-old girl who went into a convulsive status because for 10 days she has not been able to take the 200mg pill she needs. She is epileptic, and lasted days without taking the proper medicine because there wasn't any available. It's a similar story for other patients. We must have genuine political will, we must obtain the necessary currency, because this is in our 2014 budget as a product of our oil. We must give a response to the fascist right wing that has tried to intimidate in matters of life and health.

Given the lack of action from the government, what have you observed from popular organizations and from your other colleagues?

I think that there’s currently an inertia. People aren’t truly paying attention to what’s happening in the health sector … and I think if we really came to terms with the gravity of this problem, we would receive conclusive responses and solutions through our alliances with other countries: we would see agreements with Chile, with Argentina, with the Arab countries, with our other allies in Central and Latin America to resolve these problems.

Finally, what interests, what popular mobilization can solve this inertia?

I think what’s happening is a lack of understanding of the situation of the health sector … I don’t think any citizen wants another human being to die. We all have the right to life and health – our constitution says this, the Plan de la Patria says this. I feel that beyond these facts, beyond this situation, our work consists of diffusing what it means for a patient with cancer, a patient with HIV, a patient with epilepsy – a patient in such an emotional situation – to be able to have his or her medicine. I will accompany them in this battle, in the struggle to get proper medicine. All of us have to unite – the government, the state, and the male and female citizens of this country.

Translated from Spanish by Venezuelanalysis.com