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Venezuelan Public Health Update

By: Ovidio Vasquez

Venezuela has been in the spotlight recently because of its political and economic crisis. Although news of political turmoil, economic struggles, and extremely poor living conditions for Venezuelan citizens did not just start this year, the US support of Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela earlier this year has brought much attention to the country. With the country’s lack of resources and instability, thousands of Venezuelan citizens have and continue to cross the border over to Colombia in seek of refuge.

These people are fleeing because of extreme hyperinflation in the country, which has created outrageous prices for food and medicine shortages. Although clearly a public health crisis, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro does not recognize it as such and has blocked humanitarian aid by closing the Colombian border this past month. Two weeks ago, Maduro ordered the Venezuelan-Brazilian border to be closed as humanitarian aid, orchestrated by Guaidó and other opposition leaders, was expected to be received there. Many believe Maduro is rejecting aid because he believes it to be part of US tactics to overthrow him and his own personal belief that “Venezuela isn’t going to allow a false show of humanitarian aid, because we’re not beggars.”

The image shows the Tienditas International Bridge connecting Venezuela and Colombia. There are people on the bridge near trucks with food and medical supplies. Two of the three trucks are on fire.
Burning of trucks carrying food and medicine on the Tienditas International Bridge connecting Venezuela and Colombia. Photo courtesy of John Bolton.

It is important to note, however, that the humanitarian aid is not and will not be enough to feed Venezuela’s entire population. Initial reports showed that early trucks of food were only enough to feed 5,000 people for 10 days. The U.S. Embassy in Colombia revealed that this number is about less than 0.02 percent of the Venezuelan population. So, although the trucks are helping the Venezuelans who are able to get the food, they are not enough to overturn years of economic collapse and mass hunger.

Along with the food shortages in the country, health services have also crumbled. Late January of this year, Venezuelans crossed over to Colombia in search of vaccinations for a measles outbreak that had spread throughout their home country. Unable to receive vaccinations and surrounded by people that are unvaccinated or under-vaccinated, vulnerable citizens fled to Colombia to avoid contracting the virus. Within Venezuelan hospitals, shortages range from gloves and available medical beds to instruments for surgery. The situation has gotten so dire that if hospitals do not have the necessary medicine, doctors ask patients to find the medicine on their own or give them inappropriate medication. This breakdown in availability of critical health services like vaccinations and hospital care may have also affected infant mortality in Venezuela.

A UNICEF health worker administers a vaccine to a child’s left arm. Other people are gathered around watching.
Child receiving vaccine at a UNICEF health point in Colombia. The health points were created to support children and families from Venezuela. Photo courtesy of UNICEF Ecuador

Venezuela made improvements in its infant mortality rate for much of the 2000s through programs geared towards increased vaccination, sanitary and antibiotic campaigns/distribution, among other initiatives.[1] However, from 2009 onwards, the decline in infant mortality rate in Venezuela stopped. One study noted that by 2016 the infant mortality rate had returned to the level seen in the 1990s – 1.4 times the rate of 2008.[2] The authors of this study pointed towards the “progressively deteriorating nutrition status, the collapse in living standards, and a breakdown of the health system” as sources of rise of infant mortality rate. This includes “undercutting of vaccination campaigns, and shortage of medicines and medical treatment” resulting in Venezuelan citizens seeking elsewhere, like Colombia and Chile, for their health needs.

The current public health crisis in Venezuela deserves much more attention and action from the Venezuelan government and highlights its need to care for its citizens. Under Maduro this has proven to be difficult, if not impossible, and as long as he is in power, the situation may only worsen. The human lives that are being affected by this crisis are crucial and need to be considered when devising solutions.


  1. Palloni A., Pinto-Aguirre G. (2011) Adult Mortality in Latin America and the Caribbean. In: Rogers R., Crimmins E. (eds) International Handbook of Adult Mortality. International Handbooks of Population, vol 2. Springer, Dordrecht.
  1. García, J., Correa, G., & Rousset, B. (2019). Trends in infant mortality in Venezuela between 1985 and 2016: A systematic analysis of demographic data. The Lancet Global Health, 7(3).