Shortages hinder Venezuela's battle against fever outbreaks

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 16, 2014 12:32 PM

By Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) - Shortages have complicated Venezuela's efforts to treat severe outbreaks of mosquito-borne fevers this year, creating long lines at pharmacies to buy medicines and leaving the ill without treatments for swollen joints and aching bones.

Venezuela has South America's highest incidence of chikungunya, a virus of African origin that is rarely fatal but whose name comes from a Tanzanian term for being doubled-over in pain. The country has also seen an upsurge this year in the similarly harsh dengue fever.

Miguel Angel Maracara, 21, who lives in the central state of Aragua, said he visited a dozen pharmacies last month in search of the painkiller acetaminophen to treat his chikungunya, but he never found it. He had to get an injection of an analgesic at a state-run clinic.

"It's the only thing that controlled my fever during nine days, because we couldn't find acetominophen anywhere," Maracara said.

Venezuela's rigid currency control system has left businesses without sufficient dollars to import goods, spurring shortages of products as diverse as wheat flour, shampoo, medicine, and insect repellent.

The government said this week it will import 29 million acetaminophen tablets to ease the shortage.

A lack of laboratory materials to test for chikungunya has also left doctors unable to verify the exact number of cases. Official statistics put the figure at 788 confirmed, and another 2,000 suspected.

Venezuela's state-led economy has struggled for almost two years to keep shelves stocked and now faces inflation that tops 63 percent. Both problems have dented the popularity of socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

He accuses the opposition of exaggerating the impact of chikungunya, which is minor in Venezuela compared with the 486,300 cases in the Dominican Republic.

Nonetheless, he has described the illness as a "new challenge for our public health system" and in September set aside nearly $1.5 billion to acquire necessary materials.

Dengue and chikungunya have no specific treatments other than rest and avoiding medicine such as aspirin, which can cause hemorrhaging.

In the sprawling Caracas slum of Petare, informal vendors resell acetaminophen for eight times its regulated price, despite regulations that punish such sales with jail time.

The country has reported 56,729 probable cases of dengue this year, 49 percent more than last year, and 65,792 cases of malaria, or 9 percent more than 2013.

The health ministry says anti-mosquito fumigation this year was restricted by a lack of auto parts, which limited the movement of its trucks. And insufficient supplies of chemicals have left production of mosquito repellent at 12 percent of capacity.

Venezuelans increasingly turn to social networks to announce that pharmacies have received new stocks of repellent and to share ideas about homemade substitutes.

"People told me to mix vitamin B with lotion, even though the doctor said there's no scientific evidence it works," said Grisel Guerra, 36, a teacher and mother of two. "But I put some on the girls before leaving the house just to give me peace of mind."

(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Peter Galloway)