Venezuela healthcare collapse: Four children die in same hospital this month

Relatives carry a coffin containing the body of Erick Altuve, a 11-year-old boy who died from respiratory problems while in care for stomach cancer at the public Jose Manuel de los Rios hospital, at Petare neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, May 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Under a wooden arch decorated with white balloons in a small house in Caracas’ largest slum, the body of 11-year-old Erick Altuve lay in a small coffin covered in cuddly toys and cartoon drawings, one of four children who have died this month in Venezuela’s main pediatric hospital.

Altuve died on May 26 from respiratory problems while being treated for stomach cancer at the Jose Manuel de los Rios public hospital, a concrete tower ringed by a white security fence in the center of Caracas.

For the past six months, Altuve had not received his medication, his mother, Jennifer Guerrero, said, because of widespread shortages of drugs and medical equipment that have devastated Venezuela’s health system.

“My son really wanted to live,” said Guerrero, a 30-year-old housewife, during a protest over the deaths of the four children by their relatives and nurses outside the hospital.

Children have paid an especially heavy price from the collapse in Venezuela’s healthcare system as the economy has shrunk by over a half during six years of recession.

The most recent figures from Venezuela’s Health Ministry show that infant mortality, covering children age 1 and below, rose 30% to 11,466 cases in 2016 from the year before. There is no official data on children’s’ deaths from cancer.

More broadly, the mortality rate for children under 5 years has risen by 40% since 2000, the humanitarian group Save the Children said in its 2019 report.

Altuve’s death in particular has generated a wave of anger and grief across Venezuela, with outraged newspaper headlines, calls from the opposition for an investigation and an outcry from medical nongovernmental organizations.

Altuve and the three other children who died were part of a group of 30 kids at the hospital, better known as JM, waiting to go to Italy to receive bone marrow transplants under a 2010 agreement financed by the Venezuelan government that was intended to cover the cost of transportation and the operation.

The opposition has blamed their deaths on President Nicolas Maduro, whose socialist administration has presided over the collapse of the once-wealthy nation’s economy and severe reductions in health-care spending.

Maduro’s government, however, says U.S.-imposed sanctions were responsible for the children’s deaths, by freezing funds allocated to buy medicine and send the children to Italy for treatment under the 2010 agreement.

Maduro’s critics noted that his government in 2013 cut the allocation of foreign currency to the health sector by one-fifth.

According to hospital and pharmacy representatives, the supply of medicine and medical equipment has steadily declined since the cuts to dollar funding in 2013, while the U.S. government began to impose sanctions in August 2017.

Virginia Segovia, president of the Foundation to Help Children with Cancer (Fundanica) in Carabobo state west of Caracas, said that in its first 22 years, the charity registered 98 child deaths from the disease in that region.

“In the past two years, we already have 105 dead children … and that is due to the lack of supplies and equipment in hospitals, the extreme emergency we have due to lack of medicines and chemotherapy,” she said.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry, which handles news media inquiries, and the health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

‘SENTENCED TO DEATH’

Altuve was taken to the JM hospital on Dec. 25, 2018, due to a sharp pain in his stomach, his mother said. The hospital cleared him to go home after a few days but he returned on Jan. 14, 2019 and never left, according to his mother.

“He was saying that he was going to get better and the cancer wouldn’t take him,” his mother said.

On Friday, dozens of mourners carried his coffin through the narrow streets of Caracas’ eastern Petare slum from his grandparents’ house where the wake was held to a cemetery outside the city.

Children from his school clustered around to say goodbye as speakers played Vallenato, accordion-based music from Colombia’s Caribbean coast. “Erick, one more angel in heaven,” read a note on the coffin.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Monday that state-run oil firm PDVSA had signed a cooperation agreement in 2010 with Italy’s bone marrow transplant association. State-funded Venezuelan television network Telesur reported on Tuesday that the agreement had funded treatment and transplants for almost 900 patients since then.

Arreaza said on Twitter that U.S. sanctions had frozen 1.6 billion euros ($1.78 billion) of government funds held at Portugal’s Novo Banco, including 5 million euros ($5.57 million) allocated for fund bone marrow transplants for 24 Venezuelan patients.

Novo Banco and the Italian transplant association did not respond to requests for comment.

There are 52,800 new cases of cancer among adults each year in Venezuela, which has a population of 30 million people, according to Juan Saavedra, director of Venezuela’s anti-cancer society. In 2017, 26,510 people died from cancer, 15% more than the year before, Saavedra said.

“When you are born in Venezuela, you are already sentenced to death,” said Mauricio Navas, whose six-year-old daughter Mariana is being treated for leukemia at the JM hospital.

(Additional reporting by Tibisay Romero; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Russia orders five-hour daily truce in Syria’s eastern Ghouta

A child and a man are seen in hospital in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Angus McDowall and Jack Stubbs

BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will establish a humanitarian corridor and implement a five-hour daily truce in Syria’s eastern Ghouta, it said on Monday, after a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire across the entire country.

Over the past week Syria’s army and its allies have subjected the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta near Damascus to one of the heaviest bombardments of the seven-year war, killing hundreds.

On Sunday health authorities there said several people had suffered symptoms consistent with chlorine gas exposure and on Monday rescue workers and a war monitor said seven small children were killed by air and artillery strikes in one town.

“Eastern Ghouta cannot wait, it is high time to stop this hell on earth,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling for implementation of the ceasefire.

Fighting has raged across Syria since Saturday’s resolution, as Turkey presses its offensive against a Kurdish militia in Afrin, rival rebel groups fight each other in Idlib and a U.S.-led coalition targets Islamic State in the east..

Russia’s defense minister was cited by the RIA news agency as saying President Vladimir Putin had ordered a daily ceasefire in eastern Ghouta from 9am to 2pm each day and for the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” to allow civilians to leave.

Russia, along with Iran and Shi’ite militias, is a major backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and it joined the war on his side in 2015, helping him claw back important areas.

The Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, did not say whether the Syrian government or other allied forces had agreed to abide by the five-hour daily truce.

Mohamad Alloush, the political chief of one of eastern Ghouta’s biggest rebel factions, said the Syrian army and its allies had launched “a sweeping ground assault” after the U.N. resolution, adding it was vital that the truce be implemented.

“We hope for real, serious, practical action,” he said.

DEATHS

A picture issued by Civil Defence rescue workers, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed seven small bodies lying next to each other, wrapped in white and blue sheets, after air and artillery strikes on the town of Douma in eastern Ghouta.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said four of them were among a single family of nine killed by an air strike. The other three were among seven killed by shelling in the same town, it said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said allegations the Syrian government was responsible for any chemical attack, after reports of people suffering symptoms of chlorine gas poisoning, were aimed at sabotaging the truce.

The Syrian government has consistently denied using chemical weapons in the war, which will soon enter its eighth year having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half of Syria’s pre-war population of about 23 million from their homes.

Man with a child are seen in hospital in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Man with a child are seen in hospital in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The bombardment of eastern Ghouta over the past week has been one of the heaviest of the war, killing at least 556 people in eight days, according to a toll compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor.

The intensity of the bombardment has diminished since the U.N. resolution, the Observatory said, but it added that 21 people had been killed in eastern Ghouta on Monday, including the seven small children in the photograph.

Rebel shelling has caused 36 deaths and a number of injuries in Damascus and nearby rural areas in the last four days, Zaher Hajjo, a government health official, told Reuters.

Speaking in Riyadh, deputy director general of the World Health Organisation, Peter Salama, said the WHO urgently needed to evacuate 750 medical cases from eastern Ghouta.

“We also need sustained access for medical equipment and for medical drugs and commodities,” he said, adding that some supplies had been “systematically removed from convoys”.

RELATIVE LULL

In eastern Ghouta, people were making use of a relative lull in the bombardment to find provisions, said Moayad Hafi, a rescue worker based there.

“Civilians rushed from their shelters to get food and return quickly since the warplanes are still in the sky and can hit at any moment,” he told Reuters in a voice message.

Lavrov said the ceasefire would not cover either the Ahrar al-Sham or the Jaish al-Islam factions, describing them as partners of the former al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front.

The two major rebel factions in eastern Ghouta are Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman. Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of jihadists including Nusra, also has a small presence there.

A young boy rides a bicycle, near damaged houses, after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 23.

A young boy rides a bicycle, near damaged houses, after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 23.
REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

“Partners of al-Nusra are not protected by the ceasefire regime. They are also subject to the legitimate actions of Syrian armed forces and all those who support the Syrian army,” said Lavrov.

In Idlib, Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham have been battling each other in recent days, rather than working in partnership.

Syrian state television reported that army units had advanced against militants near Harasta in eastern Ghouta. State news agency SANA also reported that the army had stopped a car bomb being driven into Damascus.

The Nusra Front has consistently been excluded from ceasefires in Syria, and the opposition says the government has used this as an excuse to keep up its bombardments.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Sarah Dadouch in Riyadh and Polina Ivanova in Moscow Editing by Gareth Jones)