Children with cancer go without chemo for weeks in Venezuela due to medicine shortage

Every 28 days, Bill Monterrey has to take his 11-year-old daughter on an hour-long bus ride from Maracay, Venezuela, to Caracas to receive treatment at the state-run children’s hospital there.

“She has Albright syndrome” – a genetic disorder affecting bones, skin and the hormonal system – “and the medicines she needs are available only  in three cities in the country: Maracaibo, Barquisimeto and Caracas,” Monterrey told Fox News Latino.

While in Caracas last week, Monterrey participated in a protest outside the children’s hospital because 20 medicines needed for cancer treatment haven’t been available there for 15 days, affecting most of the 120 patients undergoing treatment in that facility, according to local media.

“My daughter’s medication was available, but I joined them because the lack of chemotherapy could be fatal for some patients,” Monterrey explained.

“Cancer doesn’t wait,” screamed the protesters, some of them accompanied by children in wheelchairs.

The protest, and others like them, were organized by the Venezuelan Association of Children with Cancer (Asovepanica), which, according to the Pan Am Post, says that other medical supplies necessary for treating cancer patients, such as syringes, bandages and needles for biopsies, are also in extremely short supply.

“We have no gammagram (the next step after a mammogram) or CT scanners, let alone simple reagents to perform blood tests, which are necessary before performing chemotherapy,” Silvia de Quijano, a representative for Asovepanica, said.

After the protest, Venezuelan health officials reached an agreement with Uruguay to obtain “five or six drugs” chemotherapy drugs, according to a person with knowledge of the accord.

According to Freddy Ceballos, president of Venezuela’s Pharmaceutical Federation, it isn’t just cancer medication that is in short supply. Ceballos said there is a shortage on 70 percent of all medications. 

In fact, the dearth of medications is so severe doctors are resorting to animal medications to treat human patients. 

“This situation has never before been seen here,” Ceballos said “Years ago, we used to worry about what would happen if the shortages affected 15 percent of drugs. Now we don’t even have common medicines like acetaminophen or contraceptives.”

People who have received organ transplants are supposed to take medicine, like corticosteroid prednisone, every day for the rest of their lives to prevent the body from rejecting the new organ.

Francisco Valencia, president of the support group, Amigos Transplantados (Friends of Transplant Recipients), told FNL that the shortage of prednisone was severe a couple of weeks ago. “We received many calls from people who couldn’t find the medicine and, desperate, instead bought prednisone for animals.”

Although the base ingredients are the same, the components of the human and veterinary versions of prednisone do vary. The version for pets has more glucose, for instance, so physicians say it isn’t always safe to use the non-human forms. 

But people became desperate and opted for the animal-version of the drug.

“We made statements to the press, and the government imported 1.2 million tablets from Cuba, which now can be found in state-managed pharmacies,” Valencia said.

Frequently, the government reacts to a shortage situation only when things start to get out of hand. As with the prednisone, only after the protests at the Caracas children’s hospital did the government intercede and deliver more chemotherapy medication, but not all types.

But Ceballos believes the problem is far from solved.

“People are also using animal versions of antibiotics like doxycycline when they can’t find human forms. Creams for burns are also unavailable, and people are making do with natural remedies like egg yolk,” he said.

According to Ceballos, there are two principal causes for the shortage of medicines: the government-imposed currency controls, which limit the amount of U.S. dollars that are made available to drug laboratories, and strict price controls that were put in place in 2003.

“The government owes $3.5 billion to the pharmaceutical companies, so they don’t have money to buy the needed components for medicine from abroad. In a best case scenario, if the debt were paid today, it would take two to three months to reactivate production,” Ceballos said.

The price control problem is dramatically explained with prednisone. The government sets the price of everything sold. A box of 30 tablets of prednisone costs 5.5 bolivars in Venezuela, the equivalent of less than a dollar. More to the point, the price is less than it costs to produce -- discouraging pharmaceutical companies from doing business in the country. 

In neighboring Colombia, those 30 tablets go for up to $15, Amigos Transplantados’ Francisco Valencia told FNL.

Ceballos believes that Venezuelans would be willing to pay more, particularly if the medication was easier to find.

For now, however, they have to get creative in order to find what they need to survive.

There are at least four different Twitter accounts created to try to help people find medications. One such account, @spvzla (short for Public Service Venezuela), created in November 2011 has nearly 11,000 followers.

It receives more than 20 requests every day from people needing help to track down medicine.

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Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

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