The Global Fund, an international financing agency created by Kofi Annan and funded by luminaries like Bill and Melinda Gates, has made a big difference addressing AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in many countries, yet it has failed to do so in Venezuela, a nation with a years-long healthcare crisis, because, on paper, the nation has the income to fund health services. There’s a chance for the Global Fund to reconsider that position at its upcoming board meeting, on May 9 and 10. And it should.
Consider Aliyoner Rodríguez, for example. In tears, she told me her greatest fear was having to look into her children’s eyes if her health deteriorates.
Rodríguez, 42, has been HIV positive for 18 years. She remained in good health since her diagnosis in 2000, thanks to antiretroviral drugs, but things are increasingly difficult with the food and medicine crisis. She hasn’t had her full treatment since August.
Artisan by trade (she makes sandals in the town of El Tocuyo), food shortages have driven up prices up to where she can’t feed herself or her family properly. She has lost almost 30 pounds and now, at 5-foot-6-inches tall, she’s an emaciated 88 pounds. Her 21-year-old daughter recently moved to Colombia and sends her money, but it’s not enough for medicines.
UNAIDS, the UN agency fighting AIDS and HIV, estimates that between 110,000 and 130,000 Venezuelans lived with HIV in 2016 —and local groups estimate the real number is much larger. Some 77,000 Venezuelans are registered with the Health Ministry’s National AIDS Program to receive antiretroviral treatment.
In the past, HIV patients got their medications from public health institutions. Today, shortages are so widespread that full antiretroviral treatments are unavailable and, according to UNAIDS, supplies for HIV testing and prevention are also in short supply.
Situation with malaria and tuberculosis is equally bleak. The World Health Organization estimates that Venezuela had more than 406,000 malaria cases in 2017 —an increase of 69% from the previous year, and the highest annual average in almost three decades. The New York Times reports that the proportion of new patients at two tuberculosis clinics who tested positive increased by 40% over the past year, while a survey by doctors in hospitals nationwide found that 88% of hospitals lack basic medicines (79% lack basic medical supplies). This makes treating any complication from HIV, malaria or tuberculosis much harder.
Some UN agencies, including UNAIDS and UNICEF, and the Pan American Health Organization, have sent medicines, but the patients and activists I interviewed all reported that the aid entering the country is falling short of patients’ needs. Local groups have received private donations, but that can reach only a limited number of people.
Last year, The Global Fund’s board recognized Venezuela’s health crisis, but it said Venezuela was still ineligible for Global Fund financing and called for a coordinated regional response and said it would support such efforts.
It is high time for a more robust response. The health of thousands of sick Venezuelans is at grave risk; surging malaria is a real threat for the region and, while Venezuela may have been a middle-income country years ago, today it faces an emergency that requires a flexible approach focused on saving lives, including investing in community-led responses.
“As long as I’m healthy, the rest will come together” Rodriguez told me. She, and many others, need help to stay healthy —and the Global Fund board members have a chance to do something about it very soon.
Please, seize the moment.