June 18, 2018 / 4:44 PM / 3 months ago

FEATURE-As Venezuela's health system crumbles, pregnant women flee to Colombia

CUCUTA, Colombia June 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - E xhausted but relieved, Yariani Flores lay next to her healthy newborn son, along with four other Venezuelan women who just gave birth in a hospital in Colombia’s border city of Cucuta.

Thousands of Venezuelan women have done the same over the past few years, as the health system in their home country has crumbled. They crossed the border, driven by fear that they or their babies could die.

Early in her pregnancy, Flores sought a pre-natal checkup at a municipal hospital in Venezuela’s frontier state of Tachira only to be told that there was little point.

“The doctor said, ‘Don’t bother coming here, I can’t do much for you,’” said Flores, lying in the 12-bed maternity ward at Cucuta’s Erasmo Meoz University Hospital.

“She recommended I come to Cucuta and have the birth here.”

Venezuela’s economic crisis has laid waste to its health system. The numbers of babies and women dying during or after childbirth have soared, while medicines and supplies have become increasingly scarce.

“You have to bring everything to the hospital in Venezuela,” said Flores, a 33-year-old mother of five. “There aren’t even any surgical gloves.”

A March survey of 137 hospitals, led by the opposition-dominated Congress, showed that they often lack basic equipment like catheters, as well as incubators and x-ray units.

Venezuelan hospitals are also plagued by water and electricity outages, and only 7 percent of emergency services are fully operative, the survey found.

Infant mortality in the oil-rich nation rose 30 percent last year, according to latest government data. Maternal mortality - dying during pregnancy or within 42 days of giving birth - shot up by 65 percent.

HEALTHCARE OVERWHELMED

Venezuela’s economic meltdown, including hyperinflation, is now putting a financial strain on the health system in Cucuta and other Colombian cities.

Nearly 820,000 Venezuelans have left their homeland to live in Colombia during the last 15 months, with arrivals expected to continue, according to Colombian authorities.

Cucuta, the largest city along the porous frontier and separated by a bridge that connects with Venezuela, has borne the brunt of the influx.

At the main hospital alone, Erasmo Meoz, about 14,000 Venezuelan patients have been treated in the past three years, most with no health insurance, said Juan Agustin Ramirez, director of the 500-bed facility.

The hospital has debts of about $6 million accumulated to care for Venezuelans, which the Colombian government has yet to reimburse as it promised last year, Ramirez said.

“This has created a financial crisis ... and there comes a time when we collapse,” he said.

Until recently, the hospital treated only a few Venezuelans, mostly for road injuries, Ramirez said.

But now, on any given day, up to one in five patients at the hospital is Venezuelan, and its crowded emergency ward is overwhelmed.

Many are children suffering skin diseases, diarrhea and respiratory problems. Others are women who have high risk pregnancies and arrive malnourished, having had few or no pre-natal checkups.

“It’s a sign that something serious is happening with public health in Venezuela,” Ramirez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

BROTHER NATION

Ramirez said Colombia has a duty to help Venezuelans.

Colombians often refer to Venezuelans as their “brothers”, as they share close cultural and family ties.

In past decades, it was Venezuela that opened its doors to millions of Colombians fleeing civil war. Many found jobs and cutting-edge medical care in the once prosperous nation, Ramirez said.

“We can’t forget that during all these years of violence in Colombia, four to five million Colombians went to Venezuela where they were given services for free,” Ramirez said.

“We have an immense debt with Venezuela.”

In the past year, about 54,500 Venezuelan migrants have received emergency care in public hospitals across Colombia, according to authorities, while nearly 200,000 have been vaccinated, many at border crossings.

But only patients needing emergency care, including pregnant women, get free treatment.

Those with chronic illnesses, like cancer, kidney failure, and HIV/AIDS are turned away because of a lack of resources.

“For those poor people, the situation is catastrophic,” Ramirez said.

Earlier this month, the Organization of American States reiterated its call on Venezuela to allow international aid into the country, to ease what it has described a “humanitarian crisis”.

Many expect the migration to continue following the re-election of Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro last month, which the United States called “a sham” and many countries refused to recognise.

“We are not prepared, nor are we going to be prepared, if there’s a bigger exodus of citizens from Venezuela as conditions deteriorate even more,” Ramirez said.

MALNUTRITION

Another casualty of Venezuela’s crisis was laid bare at the hospital’s children’s ward.

A severely underweight four-month-old baby from Venezuela’s Yukpa tribe slept, hooked up to an intravenous tube to help him recover from malnutrition.

About 200 Yukpas have fled hunger in their ancestral lands. They now live in ragged, makeshift tents just inside Colombia, near the border crossing.

Across town at a shelter run by the Scalabrini International Migration Network, a Catholic organization for migrant aid, pregnant women are given priority while other Venezuelans sleep on cardboard outside, waiting for a bed and a hot meal.

Keila Diaz, 23, who is heavily pregnant with her second child, came to the shelter with her husband in May. When the contractions start, she said, she will head to the hospital.

"I'm afraid to have my baby in Venezuela. Babies die, mothers die giving birth over there," said Diaz, gently rubbing her bulging belly. "I have a better chance here." (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Jared Ferrie. ((Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)

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