Venezuelan medical services hampered by hyperinflation, food crisis, says Alberta doctor

Cochrane, Alta., doctor William Hanlon says infectious diseases are on the rise in Venezuela, where food supplies on the decline and inflation is expected to hit seven figures.

After recent visit, William Hanlon says well-trained doctors in Venezuela have no supplies

Cochrane native Dr. William Hanlon on a visit to a hospital in Venezuela. (Basic Health International Foundation)

The world is watching Venezuela right now.

The oil rich Latin American country is in crisis, coping with food shortages and hyperinflation that have caused an exodus of approximately three million people.

The recent re-election of President Nicolas Maduro was called illegitimate and undemocratic by many, including Canada.

Cochrane, Alta., physician William Hanlon recently returned from a trip to Venezuela. He spoke to the Calgary Eyeopener about the situation on Monday.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why did you go to Venezuela?

A: I've been following the deteriorating situation there for the last few years. I had worked in Peru, in Lima, in tropical medicine. I had met and worked with some great Venezuelan doctors, and they told me all about their country back then — and also the parallels. Alberta and Venezuela are very similar, the populations very similar … so I was keen to go down and see on the ground what the situation was.

Q: External Affairs does not recommend travel to Venezuela right now, but you've been known to not pay attention to those notices in the past, doctor. So there you are. You arrive. Give me a sense what it's like on the ground.

A: I stayed with physicians and health workers all the time I was there. I spent time with them while they worked on the front lines, both in an urban environment in a large city hospital, and also we hiked into rural areas, where we visited some health clinics and got a sense of what's going on on the ground.

People working on the front line like that in health care obviously get a real sense of the pulse of the nation. They see the full gamut of the resulting consequences of a huge humanitarian crisis, like what's going on now.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he talks to the media during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, September 18, 2018. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Q: Describe that crisis. What did you actually see that gave you a sense of what's happening?

A: One of the city hospitals I spent time visiting … had a whole gamut of potential [medical] services, but they were really strangled by the lack of medicines, the lack of medical supplies. While I was there, the emergency department didn't have any adrenalin for a full week.

Somebody had cut the wires of the X-ray machine to sell the copper, basically to feed their family. And there were no X-rays for about five days. This is in a very large city hospital.

The surgical suites were very quiet, probably working to 10 per cent capacity because, again, of a lack of medical supplies. The generators often break, so the equipment on the ground is not available in a lot of cases.

The surgeons are very competent, very well-trained, but don't have the supplies or sometimes the support and investigating tools to do their work.

It's very frustrating for them.

Q: It wasn't long ago that they were the envy of many other Latin American countries because of the amount of cash that was flowing through there, and because of what some would describe as first world conditions. It's falling apart quickly. Is that what you're seeing?

A:  Very quickly, And again with hyperinflation, the [International Monetary Fund] claims the inflation rate this year is going to be one million per cent [in Venezuela].

So something as simple as a pair of surgical gloves costs a family what would be the equivalent of 20 per cent of a month's salary.

Dr. WIlliam Hanlon, seen here in Afghanistan in 2016, runs Basic Health International Foundation, a non-profit, humanitarian organization that provides medical support to high altitude communities around the world. (Basic Health International Foundation)

Those people who were fortunate enough to get surgery down there have to bring everything into into the hospital —gloves, all equipment, et cetera. 

People talk about food shortages. I did visit a number of supermarkets, just to see how the food access was. It may not be representative of the whole country, but there is food on the shelves. But it's so expensive now with inflation so high that people's money doesn't go very far.

Q: What can be done here to help?

A: The first step is awareness. People [I spoke to in Venezuela] felt that the main thing was just to get the message out. The second, I think, is maybe writing to your MP as well. I've talked to David Swann recently, and he's very interested in the cause. Canada is part of the Lima Group … a group of 13 other countries … trying to put pressure on the Maduro regime, which I think a lot of people would certainly realize was not a very legitimate election back in May. And he's in [office] now for another six years.

But I think people are putting pressure on his government first to admit there is a crisis, which I think is the first step.

The second step I think is to increase access to humanitarian aid. And then of course releasing political prisoners would be a very positive thing too. And also working obviously toward democracy.

One of the big issues I have medically about the situation on the ground is that the amount of infectious disease has gone up. They've had huge outbreaks because of the breakdown of the health system and health services — a huge outbreak of diphtheria and measles. Malaria rates are going way up, and HIV rates are going up.

What we're seeing now, because of the lack of medicines and access of appropriate medicines and investigation, is multidrug-resistant infections.

And that has [medical] implications, not just within Venezuela and the surrounding countries, but globally too, because people travel. Over 3 million people have left Venezuela in the last three years or so, so that infectious disease risk to the world globally is huge.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: