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A demonstrator throws back a tear gas canister fired by Venezuela national police after clashes broke out May 8, 2014, at an anti-government protest in Caracas. / Alejandro Cegarra, AP

CARACAS, Venezuela ?? The wretched condition of Venezuela under its socialist leadership is now worsening the ability of hospitals to treat people, especially patients with HIV.

"I go to the state hospital once or twice a week to see if my pills have arrived,'' says schoolteacher Jose Ramos, 38, who stays alive with antiretroviral medicines that have always been free here. "They always tell me to come back later."

Ramos isn't alone. Nearly 50,000 Venezuelans are taking antiretrovirals to keep the HIV virus from turning into full-blown AIDS, a disease that destroys the immune system. Thousands of HIV patients are now without their medicines, non-profit groups here say.

The crisis in HIV care and prevention is but one facet of Venezuela's worsening economy that has caused nationwide shortages of toilet paper, milk, coffee, sugar, cooking oil, cheese, meat, spare parts and many medicines.

Shortages are spreading to public utilities, including water and power. The government said this week that it would ration water in the capital of Caracas, with some residents receiving water every other day due to lighter-than-normal rainfall as well as a lack of maintenance in the city's water grid.

The government also announced power cuts in the western state of Zulia, after neighboring Colombia cut supplies of natural gas, which will hit electricity generation.

But the latest shortage in antiretrovirals exposed the debilitation of the country's socialized medical system, which is touted as free and comprehensive by the government but often is neither.

Former president Hugo Chavez, who died in March 2013, often cited the country's health system as one of his revolution's greatest accomplishments. But medicine shortages are frequent and people have to help pay for items hospitals don't have.

Drug treatments are often in short supply for people with cancer and diabetes. Hospital operations are delayed for months due to a lack of anesthesia and other medicines.

Although treatment is theoretically cost-free, many patients find themselves having to buy their gauze, gloves and drugs for their doctors to use in operations.

With HIV/AIDS, the shortages have been made up in antiretroviral donations from outside the country.

"It's not easy to find donations abroad now,'' says Feliciano Reyna, who heads Accion Solidaria, another NGO. Reyna returned last year after a trip abroad with 120 bottles of antiretrovirals. A similar trip this month netted nothing. "Our situation is really critical."

The free drugs came chiefly from the United States, a nation that Chavez and current President Nicolas Maduro have vilified as evil.

The Venezuela government says the shortages are caused by an "economic war" being waged against it, but doesn't cite to evidence of it. Economists blame the crisis on government mismanagement, corruption and economic policies, including foreign exchange controls that were implemented by Chavez.

The government controls access to foreign currency but hasn't made enough dollars available to cover imports of medicines. Venezuela imports about 90% of its pharmaceutical drugs.

The government denied any problems.

"I challenge you to find me an HIV patient, only one, who says he can't find treatment,'' Health Minister Francisco Armada said in a recent newspaper interview. Reacting to complaints about shortages of antiretrovirals, Armada said they "weren't true."

Armada's remarks unleashed a flurry of criticism.

"The minister is lying,'' says Mauricio Gutierrez, who heads Positive Collective, a non-government organization for HIV positive people.

"There have been problems with drug shortages since 2009. They usually lasted a few weeks and then were solved. But this year, the shortages have lasted and lasted."

Calls to the health ministry requesting information and an interview with Armada weren't returned.

The danger for HIV positive people is that any interruption in their drug regimen can allow the virus to acquire resistance to the medications, forcing patients to have to use other drugs often with greater side-effects.

Making matters even worse is a general shortage of testing materials, Gutierrez says.

"There aren't materials to test to see if a person has developed resistance, or what his viral levels might be,'' he says. "The situation is critical."

Ramos has been without his drugs for nearly five months, he says.

"I feel so helpless,'' he says, his face taut with worry. "This is a serious problem and I have to trust the government that they will honor their promises and do something. For me, it's a matter of life and death.

"The last time they told me that I should go to Colombia and buy the drugs there. I don't have the money to travel to Colombia, let alone buy the drugs."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Anti-HIV drugs dry up in Venezuela

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