RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil's health ministry promised on Thursday to hire nearly 2,500 medical staff in the state of Rio de Janeiro as it scrambles to help local authorities deal with a funding crisis that has left hospitals under-staffed and ill equipped.
Eight months before the Olympics are due to unfold in Rio, fallout from what is turning into the country's worst financial crisis in a century is hitting public services. In December, the state governor declared a state of emergency as money ran out and hospitals cut services or closed units.
Alberto Beltrame, a senior health ministry official assigned to help the state, held a crisis meeting in Rio on Thursday to beef up resources at federal hospitals over-run with patients due to lack of equipment and staff at state hospitals.
Beltrame told reporters afterwards that federal health services in the state would hire over the next 20 days 2,493 staff including 693 doctors and 605 nurses. New staff will be contracted for six months, but the terms can be extended to two years.
The ministry said the measure would cost 130.9 million reais (US$32.3 million) per year in 2016 and 2017.
"It's a significant increase, equivalent to opening a new hospital in Rio rapidly," Beltrame said.
For those working in the hospitals, help cannot come fast enough.
"This is the worst crisis I've seen," said Anjela Caldas, 60, who has worked as a nurse in Rio for 32 years.
Caldas told Reuters that people needing emergency surgery were being turned away because space was taken by patients with chronic health issues usually treated at other hospitals. She said she was being forced to attend to conditions outside her expertise.
Brazil's health problems are not limited to Rio.
The country is grappling with an outbreak of zika, a mosquito-borne virus detected in Africa in the 1940s that surfaced in the Americas last year.
Brazilian health authorities have linked zika to a rise in the number of babies born with microcephaly, a birth defect that seriously limits mental and physical ability.
In addition, vaccines are in short supply after imports were reduced in the past year, sources familiar with the matter have said. On Thursday, Brazil's Globo TV channel reported shortages of vaccines across the country.
On Wednesday the health ministry reduced the number of doses given for certain vaccines, partly to control the cost of the 2.9 billion-real (US$720 million) program. It said the changes did not affect efficacy.
When asked about the vaccines, Beltrame said the situation was being resolved, but he offered no details.
In advance of the Olympics, Brazil has also been trying to clean up pollution and contaminated water.
Officials in Rio have conceded that a promise to treat 80 percent of sewage entering Guanabara Bay will not be achieved before the Olympics' Aug. 5 opening ceremony.
Health experts have said risks to the public from contaminated water range from gastrointestinal diseases to hepatitis A.
(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Toni Reinhold)