HEALTH

The stark reality of socialist Venezuela: children are literally dying of hunger

  • Maria del Carmen Chourio, 5, was admitted to Maracaibo's Chiquinquirá Hospital three months ago weighing 11 pounds. She was released last week after gaining six pounds.

    Maria del Carmen Chourio, 5, was admitted to Maracaibo's Chiquinquirá Hospital three months ago weighing 11 pounds. She was released last week after gaining six pounds.  (Photo courtesy of the Angeles Chiquinquireños Foundation)

  • Maria del Carmen Chourio, 5, was released after three months at Chiquinquirá Hospital, weighing 17 pounds.

    Maria del Carmen Chourio, 5, was released after three months at Chiquinquirá Hospital, weighing 17 pounds.  (Photo courtesy of the Angeles Chiquinquireños Foundation)

  • Maria del Carmen Chourio's family, which includes 11 children, playing outside their home in Maracaibo, Venezuela.

    Maria del Carmen Chourio's family, which includes 11 children, playing outside their home in Maracaibo, Venezuela.  (Photo courtesy of the Angeles Chiquinquireños Foundation)

Laura Montilva is 22 years old. Her 5-month-old son is one of more than 60 being treated for malnutrition at the J. M. de los Ríos Hospital, Venezuela's main pediatric hospital.

His case is considered severe. He weighs 8.5 pounds and his mother doesn’t produce enough milk to feed him. In this country, formula is a luxury reserved for a select few.

“I don’t have money. I don’t feed him well and I can’t buy him milk formula,” she told Fox News Latino.

The little formula she gets she dissolves a tablespoon at a time in a large water bottle. She manages to get enough for four times a day, she said, when the recommended amount for a baby his son’s age is eight times a day.

Food shortages in Venezuela have spurred a dramatic increase in child malnutrition — in just one year, the number of cases of severely malnourished children doubled in Caracas, the capital. According to Dr. Ingrid Soto, chief of nutrition at J. M. de los Ríos Hospital, so far this year 65 kids have been admitted, whereas in all of 2015 the total was 35.

Nationwide, so far this year 7 children under the age of 14 years have died because they didn’t have enough food in their system.

Meanwhile, President Nicolas Maduro likes to joke about a diet bearing his name that is making Venezuelans skinnier.

“The ‘Maduro diet’ makes you hard,” he said recently.

Two out of 3 (66.15 percent) of the children admitted this year to J. M. de los Ríos are nursing babies, according to hospital records. And the consequences of this are not only dire, but irreversible.

“If an adult suffers from malnutrition, it will not affect his brain and development so much as it would a kid in the first 1,000 days of life,” Dr. Soto said. “Then they will have issues with memory, concentration, school problems,” she added.

“Malnourished children are not going to be able to compete in the future,” said Dr. Mercedes López de Blanco, a pediatrician with the Bengoa Foundation. “They are going to have a poor schooling. We are playing with human potential. It's a sin,” she said.

But malnutrition is affecting people all ages in today's Venezuela, particularly those living in the most isolated regions.

A survey conducted in 2015 by three universities (Venezuela’s Central University, Andrés Bello and Simón Bolívar) showed that 76 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty and 49 percent in “critical” poverty. 

Additionally, 12.1 percent, or about 3.6 million people, eat only twice a day. The food selection is poor, however, since scarcity here has reached historic levels and Venezuelans are seen spending hours of their day hoping for a pound of corn.

A separate study carried out by Venezuelan Health Watch and the Bengoa Foundation found that in 2015 calorie consumption dropped from 2,500 to 1,780 daily in children and teenagers across the country.

In the city of Maracaibo, Zulia state, there is the case of Maria del Carmen Chourio, a 5-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who was admitted to Chiquinquirá Hospital thanks to the support of the Angeles Chiquinquireños Foundation. 

At 11 pounds, the girl was able to pull though and was discharged last week, three months later, when the scale hit 17 pounds.

“For us she was not ready to leave the hospital," said Carolina López, who said the foundation is currently helping 12 other children hospitalized for severe malnutrition. 

"We are planning to visit [the Chourio family] at least twice a week, but they need milk and food donations,” she said.

María Emilia Jorge M. is a freelancer journalist living in Caracas, Venezuela.

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