Venezuela's food crisis hits kids hard

AFP , Tuesday 12 Feb 2019

An undernourished baby remains in a hospital bed in Maracay, Aragua state, Venezuela on February 7, 2019. (AFP)

Yemilay Olivar trudged nearly 10 miles in worn-out shoes to bring her malnourished baby to the hospital, and left another six hungry kids at home.

As Venezuela's government and opposition quarrel over letting in foreign humanitarian aid, the saddest face of the crisis is indeed that of suffering children.

Olivar's two-month-old baby girl Rosmilay should weigh around five kilos but tips the scales at just half that, and this is 200 grams less than at birth.

The child's skin adheres so tightly to the bone that it was hard to carry out intravenous feeding. The drama played out in a pediatric hospital called Los Samanes, in the city of Maracay, about 100 kilometers from Caracas.

"They could not find a vein," 29-year-old Yemilay, looking downcast and unhealthy.

Huniades Urbina, president of the Pediatric Society, said 78 percent of children in Venezuela are at risk for malnutrition -- before due to food shortages and now staggering hyperinflation.

A can of milk for newborns costs as much as 70,000 bolivares, or nearly four months the minimum wage.

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 kids 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.

'They thought he was dead'

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 3.6 kilos to 3.9 kilos.

His yellowish arms and legs show a rash caused by some of the medicine he is being given.

Even the 10-story 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 kids treated daily in the pediatric ward of the Central Hospital, 60 to 70 percent 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 kids under five who were treated there had some kind of malnutrition and it was severed in 7.3 percent of cases.

Donations from abroad

In an old house in downtown Maracay that used to be a casino, the walls are now covered with children's drawings.

"Bienvenidos" -- welcome -- is spelled out in colored letters in a room where kids learn to read and write.

The house is now a school for some 20 kids and works as part of a foundation called Kapuy. It was created four years ago by Daniela Olmos, a 32-year-old doctor's assistant, when she returned to Venezuela from the United States.

At first she used to hand out food in the streets. But eventually she realized this was tantamount to throwing food away if it was not part of a program with true social and nutritional impact.

The opposition-controlled National Assembly says Venezuela is in the grips of a food emergency, the consequences of which include a growth delay in 33 percent of poor children up to two years of age.

Overwhelmed by the crisis, Mayerlin Diaz, who has seven kids, one of them with Down syndrome, used to look for food in garbage cans or panhandle for money. The Kapuy foundation rescued her from that life.

"Thanks to them, my children eat three meals a day. I have a job here," said Diaz, who said that from the government she gets a monthly voucher that does not even buy her a kilo of rice.

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