Weekly Chart: Venezuela's Infant and Maternal Health Crisis

By Holly K. Sonneland

Venezuela’s maternal mortality rate is now estimated to be over 100 deaths per 100,000 live births.

In early May, a report appeared on the Venezuelan Health Ministry’s website that no one had seen in almost two years: a weekly health bulletin. This one, from the last week of 2016, had government statistics showing dramatic increases in infant and maternal deaths from the prior year. Two days after the news of the report hit local press, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro fired the health minister. Along with the attorney general, who spoke out against government in late March, the women are two of the highest-ranking chavista officials to publicly deny the party line in recent months as widespread protests persist.

Assuming a constant birth rate, the government figures would place the infant death rate at around 19 per 1,000 live births and the maternal one at around 100 per 100,000 live births, the latter of which is roughly twice the rate of Venezuela’s neighbors and more comparable to those found in the poorest countries in South America. Doctors say many of the deaths are due to lack of equipment like incubators and even basic medical supplies such as gauze pads and saline solution.

But even a steady birth rate is far from a given. On the one hand, contraceptives are nowhere to be found in about 90 percent of pharmacies in a country that already had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancies in Latin America. Those with money can buy a condom on the black market for about 22,500 bolivares—25 times the government-controlled price and a third of a monthly minimum wage amid spiraling inflation.

Getting pregnant brings a whole host of new risks amid shortages, as malnourished women give birth to malnourished babies. The new mothers are then often unable to breastfeed. Just 14 percent of Venezuelans say their diet is “sufficient” these days,with many on a diet high in starches and low in nutrients, putting almost an entire generation at risk of a host of lifelong health complications—heart disease and diabetes in particular.

In fact, women are signing up for sterilization in record numbers. Doctors who estimate they used to consult 1 to 2 women per week about the procedure are now seeing five per day. Many perform the procedure on set days, with up to 40 appointments slots per day, which typically did not get filled. Now all slots are quickly taken, with several clinics reporting waiting lists in the hundreds.