- WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
- Eight in ten children in Venezuela are at risk of malnutrition in current crisis, experts warn
- A can of milk for newborns costs 70,000 bolivares, which is around four times the monthly minimum wage
- Hospital staff say children who are being brought in resemble ‘bones wrapped in skin’
- Despite the crisis, President Nicolas Maduro still refuses to lift blockade of humanitarian aid
As President Nicolas Maduro stages the biggest military drills in Venezuela’s history, and steadfastly maintains a border blockade that is stopping humanitarian aid from entering the country, thousands of children are wasting away and starving to death.
Heartbreaking images show young children being brought to crisis-hit hospitals resembling ‘little bones wrapped in skin’ by desperate parents unable to find food for their families.
Eight in ten Venezuelan children are at risk of malnutrition due to staggering hyperinflation, which has left a can of milk for newborns costing as much as 70,000 bolivar.
This is nearly four times the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela, and using the most recent exchange rate, 70,000 Venezuelan bolivar amounts to about 20p, or 30 US cents.
Despite having the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela is suffering soaring levels of malnutrition, disease and violence after 20 years of socialist rule launched by the late President Hugo Chavez.
Critics accuse Maduro, a former bus driver and Chavez’s hand-picked successor, of unfairly winning an election last year for a second six-year term by banning his popular rivals from running and jailing others.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido has won backing from nearly 50 countries worldwide, including the United States, which has pledged an initial $20 million in support and has already shipped emergency food and medicine to the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where it sits in a warehouse.
Maduro has refused all economic assistance, denying there is an crisis in Venezuela – and claiming that the aid waiting in Cucuta is part of a coup being orchestrated by the White House to topple him.
At a pediatric hospital called Los Samanes, in the city of Maracay, about 62miles from the capital Caracas, Yemilay Olivar holds her two-month-old baby girl Rosmilay.
Mrs Olivar trudged nearly ten miles in worn-out shoes to bring her malnourished baby to the hospital, and left another six hungry children at home.
Little Rosmilay should weigh around 11lbs, but tips the scales at just half that, and this is 200 grams (0.4lbs) less than at birth.
The child’s skin adheres so tightly to the bone that it was hard to carry out intravenous feeding.
‘They could not find a vein,’ 29-year-old Yemilay, looking downcast and unhealthy.
Elder, a pediatrician with 32 years of experience who asked that her last name be given for fear of repercussions, says she cannot recall seeing children in such bad shape.
‘Children come in with their little bones wrapped in skin. It is shocking to see,’ Elder told AFP at the hospital.
While holding her baby Yemilay Olivar recalls that she spent her pregnancy eating rice or grain that were gifted to her. She went to see Cuban doctors as part of a government health program but she got no vitamins, she said.
This saga and many others like it are at the center of the fight between opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has been recognized as interim president by some 50 countries, and leftist president Nicolas Maduro.
Guaido argues that it is urgent to let in US-financed medicine and food stored inside Colombia on the border with Venezuela. Maduro says no to such assistance, saying it would be the first step toward a US military intervention.
Samuel, who is 15 months old, weighs as little as a newborn. His mother Gleiny Hernandez cries as she looks at him in a bed in the city’s Central Hospital, where he was close to death upon admission.
‘They did not want to treat him because they thought he was dead on arrival,’ said 26-year-old Hernandez, who recently gave birth to another child.
Samuel’s head stands out grotesquely because his little body is so emaciated. He barely moves and stares off at nothing. During 15 days of hospitalization, his weight has increased from 7.9lbs to 8.5lbs.
His yellowish arms and legs show a rash caused by some of the medicine he is being given.
Even the ten-storey hospital itself is a basket case. The floors are filthy, the elevator does not work and in many rooms there are signs warning there is no running water.
‘There are doctors who have fainted from not eating,’ an anesthesiologist with 20 years of experience told AFP.
Maduro denies there is a humanitarian crisis and argues that six million poor families receive a crate of subsidized, cut-rate foodstuffs every month.
‘It is all so exasperating,’ said Grismely Morillo, a resident in internal medicine, who cries over what she describes as the utter chaos at the hospital.
Of the 15 to 20 children treated daily in the pediatric ward of the Central Hospital, 60 to 70 per cent show some degree of malnutrition, hospital sources said.
A study by the Catholic charity Caritas published in November revealed that 57 percent of the 4,103 children under five who were treated there had some kind of malnutrition and it was severed in 7.3 per cent of cases.