Tuesday July 16, 2019

With Medicine Running Out, Venezuelans With Transplant Live in Fear

At least seven have died due to complications stemming from organ failure in the last three months

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Yasmira Castano felt she had a fresh chance at life when she received a kidney transplant almost two decades ago. The young Venezuelan was able to finish high school and went on to work as a manicurist.

But late last year, Castano, now 40, was unable to find the drugs needed to keep her body from rejecting the organ, as Venezuela’s health care system slid deeper into crisis following years of economic turmoil.

On Christmas Eve, weak and frail, Castano was rushed to a crumbling state hospital in Venezuela’s teeming capital, Caracas. Her immune system had attacked the foreign organ and she lost her kidney shortly afterward.

Now, Castano needs dialysis three times a week to filter her blood. But the hospital attached to Venezuela’s Central University, once one of South America’s top institutions, frequently suffers water outages and lacks materials for dialysis.

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Yasmira Castano, 40, who lost her transplanted kidney, lies on a bed at a state hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 7, 2018. VOA

“I spend nights not sleeping, just worrying,” said Castano, who weighs around 77 pounds (35 kg), as she lay on an old bed in a bleak hospital room, its bare walls unadorned by a television or pictures.

Her roommate Lismar Castellanos, who just turned 21, put it more bluntly.

ALSO READ: Kidney Transplant becomes New Possibility to cure Terminally-Ill Kidney Patients in the US

“Unfortunately, I could die,” said Castellanos, who lost her transplanted kidney last year and is struggling to get the dialysis she needs to keep her body functioning.

The women are among Venezuela’s roughly 3,500 transplant recipients. After years leading normal lives, they now live in fear as Venezuela’s economic collapse under President Nicolas Maduro has left the once-prosperous OPEC nation unable to purchase sufficient foreign medicine or produce enough of its own.

Some 31 Venezuelans have seen their bodies start to reject their transplanted organs in the last month due to lack of medicine, according to umbrella health group Codevida, a nongovernmental organization.

At least seven have died due to complications stemming from organ failure in the last three months.

A further 16,000 Venezuelans, many hoping for an elusive transplant, are dependent on dialysis to clean their blood — but here, too, resources and materials are sorely lacking.

Nearly half of the country’s dialysis units are out of service, according to opposition lawmaker and oncologist Jose Manuel Olivares, a leading voice on the health crisis who has toured dialysis centers to assess the scale of the problem.

‘Straight to the cemetery’

In the last three weeks alone, seven people have died due to lack of dialysis, according to Codevida, which staged a protest to decry the critical drug shortages.

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Reinaldo Olivares, a kidney transplanted patient, holds a placard with the shape of the map of Venezuela that reads, “Humanitarian emergency. I do not want to lose my organ,” during a protest against medicinal shortages in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 8, 2018. VOA

Once-controlled diseases like diphtheria and measles have returned, due partly to insufficient vaccines and antibiotics, while Venezuelans suffering chronic illnesses like cancer or diabetes often have to forgo treatment.

Hundreds of thousands of desperate Venezuelans, meanwhile, have fled the country over the past year, including many medical professionals.

Amid a lack of basics like catheters and crumbling hospital infrastructure, doctors who remain struggle to cope with ever scarcer resources.

“It’s incredibly stressful. We request supplies; they don’t arrive. We call again and they still don’t arrive. Then we realize it’s because there aren’t any,” said a kidney specialist at a public hospital, asking to remain anonymous because health workers are not allowed to speak publicly about the situation.

Venezuela’s Social Security Institute, tasked with providing patients with drugs for chronic conditions, did not respond to a request for comment.

Terrified transplant patients are indebting themselves to buy pricey medicine on the black market, begging relatives abroad to funnel drugs into the country or dangerously reducing their daily intake of pills to stretch out stock.

Larry Zambrano, a 45-year-old father of two with a kidney transplant, resorted to taking immunosuppressants designed for animals last year.

Guillermo Habanero and his brother Emerson both underwent kidney transplants after suffering polycystic kidney disease.

Emerson, a healthy 53-year-old former police officer, died in November after a month without immunosuppressants.

“If you lose your kidney, you go to dialysis but there are no materials. So you go straight to the cemetery,” said Habanero, 56, who runs a small computer repair shop in the poor hillside neighborhood of Catia.

Blaming Maduro, who blames sanctions

A Reuters reporter went to the Health Ministry to request an interview but was asked at the entrance to give her contact details instead. No one called or emailed.

Reuters was also unable to contact the Health Ministry unit in charge of transplants, Fundavene, for comment. Its website was unavailable. Multiple calls to different phone numbers went unanswered. An email bounced back and no one answered a message on the unit’s Facebook page.

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Lismar Castellanos, 21, who lost her transplanted kidney, takes a selfie with her mother and friends during her birthday celebration at a state hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 7, 2018. VOA

Maduro’s government has said the real culprit is an alleged U.S.-led business elite seeking to sabotage its socialist agenda by hoarding medicine and imposing sanctions.

“I see the cynicism of the right-wing, worried about people who cannot get dialysis treatment, but it’s their fault: They’ve asked for sanctions and a blockade against Venezuela,” Socialist Party heavyweight Diosdado Cabello said in recent comments on his weekly television program.

Health activists blame what they see as Maduro’s inefficient and corrupt government for the medical crisis and contend that government announcements of more imports for dialysis are totally insufficient.

ALSO READ: Mumbai roads make way for a speedy heart transplant

Despite his unpopularity, Maduro is expected to win a new six-year term in an April 22 presidential election. The opposition is likely to boycott the vote, which it has already denounced as rigged in favor of the government.

Maduro has refused to accept food and medicine donations, despite the deepening health care crisis. Health activists and doctors smuggle in medicines, often donated by the growing Venezuelan diaspora, in their suitcases, but it is far from enough.

In the decaying hospital and dialysis center visited by Reuters, patients clamored for humanitarian aid.

Dolled up for her birthday and surrounded by cakes, the 21-year-old Castellanos took selfies with her friends and spoke excitedly about one day returning to dance, one of her passions.

But fears for her future permeated the room. A hospital worker stopped by to wish Castellanos many more birthday celebrations, but her worried face betrayed doubts.

“Other countries need to help us,” Castellanos said. (VOA)

Next Story

No more Standing in Queues for Long Hours! Now South Africans to get Medicine from Vending Machines

Hutiri explains why he created the Pelebox

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Inventor Neo Hutiri poses in front of one of his Peleboxes. (T. Khumalo/VOA)

An innovative system to dispense medicine to patients with chronic illnesses is taking off in South Africa. The award-winning “Pelebox,” created by South African engineer Neo Hutiri, is a computer-controlled vending machine stocked with prescription drugs, which patients access using a personal code.

The Pelebox has been hailed as a life saver for many, who use often-crowded South African hospitals and clinics. The medicine dispenser resembles the common automated teller machine and functions in a similar way. Hutiri explains why he created the Pelebox.

“If you have been to public clinics, one of the biggest challenges that you face is spending hours and hours to get access to your chronic medication. The idea was very simple: Can we create a technology, locally manufactured, locally born idea where we can get somebody to collect medication in a couple of seconds, instead of waiting for hours?” asked Hutiri.

Details of each patient are uploaded into a computer system connected to the machine. The patient must indicate the clinic or point where they want to get their medication. The machine consists of a simple wall of lockers controlled by a digital system. And Hutiri, who once had a chronic illness, explains the most exciting experience for patients.

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Jenifer Shingange, a patient with a chronic illness, says the Pelebox has been a god-sent for her (T. Khumalo/VOA)

“We take pre-packed medicine, we would scan the medicine, load it inside the unit. It then sends an SMS to a patient saying ‘Neo your medication is ready for collection, here is a one-time pin, please come and collect your medication at Winnie Mandela clinic.’ The patient simply walks to the unit. On that touch screen, enters their cell phone together with a pin. It pops open the door. They collect and they are on their way,” said Hutiri.

The technology, first introduced in 2016, has been a hit among patients. There are 11 Peleboxes already operational across the country. For years, 45-year-old Jenifer Shingange, a beneficiary of the technology, had to line up at dawn to collect her medication every month. She says since she started getting her drugs from the Peleboxes, she chooses a time that suits her, including after work.

ALSO READ: Delhi Government to Transform Rajghat Thermal Power Plant into Solar Park

“I would like to say very thank you. Thank you so much. What is making me excited is that when I come here I don’t stand in a long queue. I just put my cellphone and pin and press and get my treatment,” said Shingange.

The Aurum Institute, a leading health care organization that has partnered with Hutiri, expects to introduce 10 more machines in the city of Ekurhuleni. Up to 26 machines will be functioning across the country by September. With each of the Peleboxes serving over 1,200 patients a month, authorities say they will go a long way toward shortening lines in hospitals and clinics. (VOA)