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Venezuela Struggles To Contain Zika Outbreak Amid Economic Crisis


Venezuela is one of the countries hardest hit by the Zika virus. The outbreak comes as Venezuela deals with a severe economic crisis which has led to shortages of medical supplies and doctors. So public hospitals are in bad shape to deal with waves of Zika patients. From Caracas, John Otis reports.

YOANA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Yoana Rodriguez is nine weeks pregnant. She recently came down with a rash and fever and has come here to the Maternity Hospital to find out if what she had was Zika.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Rodriguez says, "you hear so much about Zika, and my pregnancy is just starting, so I'm at risk." Health experts are studying whether Zika is linked to microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. Neighboring Brazil has reported more than 600 cases of microcephaly that are possibly linked to Zika since the outbreak started there in October. So far in Venezuela, doctors have reported no birth defects related to Zika. However, thousands of Venezuelans have fallen ill with the virus, and there's not much the country's hospitals can do to help.

At the crowded Maternity Hospital, doctors deliver about 9,000 babies every year. But it lacks incubators, antibiotics, even bleach to mop the floors. The stench on some wards is overpowering. Thanks to Venezuela's collapsing currency, doctors and nurses here earn less than $50 a month. Many have quit, says Gladys Zambrano, an epidemiologist.

GLADYS ZAMBRANO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Some hospital departments are deserted," she says. The Maternity Hospital lacks neonatal specialists just as doctors brace for possible cases of microcephaly.

ZAMBRANO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Zambrano says she's hard-pressed to treat basic Zika symptoms like fever due to a shortage of acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol. Back in the 1960s and '70s, oil-rich Venezuela had one of the best public health systems in Latin America. Over time, it deteriorated, but critics contend that the socialist revolution ushered in by the late Hugo Chavez 17 years ago has made conditions far worse. They say traditional hospitals were largely ignored while the government spent billions on a network of first-aid centers in poor neighborhoods staffed by Cuban doctors. Gustavo Villasmil, a physician who used to direct public health programs in the city, says the strategy backfired.

GUSTAVO VILLASMIL: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says hospitals have languished while 80 percent of the first-aid centers have shut down amid the economic crisis. Most of the Cuban doctors have gone home. The health ministry did not respond to NPR's request for comment. As for the drug supply, government takeovers of pharmaceutical companies and price controls have squeezed local drug production. Slumping oil prices mean the government lacks dollars to import enough medical supplies.

ZAMBRANO: (Speaking Spanish).

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The shortages prove troublesome for Rodriguez, the pregnant woman. In order to take a blood test for Zika, she had to bring her own test tube to the Maternity Hospital. The results have yet to come back. She's also been vomiting, so Zambrano writes her a prescription for two anti-nausea drugs.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But the shelves are mostly bare at the hospital pharmacy and at nearby drug stores, so Rodriguez goes home empty-handed. For NPR News, I'm John Otis - Caracas, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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