Oletta: 200,000 Venezuelans will Contract Malaria by 2017

In an in-depth interview, Dr. José Felix Oletta explains the full extent of the Malaria epidemic and the collapse of the public health system.

Dr. José Felix Oletta wears a lot of hats. He was Minister of Health from 1997-1999. He teaches medicine at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. He has a thriving private practice as an internist. He also sits on an advisory board of doctors that collects data for the current Venezuelan Health Ministry from every hospital in the country.  

Last summer, his board gave the government some bad news,

On July 31, despite government censorship, there are 129,747 registered cases of Malaria in Venezuela. We have a serious problem. We have this problem in many parts of Venezuela. Venezuela has 23 states, 15 of them have the problem. By the end of the year, we estimate that there will be more than 200-thousand Malaria cases.

Maduro and his family would never go to a public hospital.

He charges that both the Health Ministry and President Nicolas Maduro have done nothing about the malaria outbreak, and tried to censor the figures, “Why doesn’t the government give numbers of cases? It’s inefficient that the government doesn’t do this and our informal board of doctors does.”

Neither the Health Minister nor the President has made a public statement about the outbreak. Instead, Maduro keeps saying “Venezuela has the best health care system in Latin America.”

Dr. Oletta doesn’t buy it and says the malaria outbreak is only a symptom of a broken health care system,

Propaganda. Maduro doesn’t go to a public hospital like Venezuelans do. He goes to the military hospital. There are no bandages. There are no IV bags. There are no cotton balls. Maduro and his family would never go to a public hospital. The crisis has many dimensions. Malaria is a little piece of the health situation in Venezuela. Never before has the government not invested heavily in the  health care system, it’s insufficient. It is all political.

The Ministry of Health wields little influence over health care yet has all but shut down Venezuela’s pharmaceutical industry by not importing the raw materials to make medicines. Venezuela must import all things medical.  The powerful Venezuelan Military actually imports and distributes medicine and medical supplies. Their private hospitals are well stocked and not open to the public,  

The government prefers to pay for the military and security instead of paying the debt of a national health care system. The President spends our Treasury’s cash reserves and we have no explanation on how the money is spent.

When Oletta was health minister, Venezuela one spent 4 billion dollars yearly on a countrywide network of clinics and hospitals.

The Venezuelan health care has been in free fall ever since Maduro took office in 2013. Dr. Oletta wonders why a socialist government doesn’t fund a national health care system,

It’s essential to have these drugs to fight malaria, but even people with money can’t buy the medicine because we don’t have any to buy.

How is it possible that a fundamental right, an obligation by the government, the President, the Health Minister aren’t serving the public? Why aren’t they meeting their obligation? They as public figures must ensure our rights.  

Hospital Universitario at the Central University of Venezuela was once one of Latin America’s leading teaching hospitals and students from all over South America flocked there. Now, it’s the poster child for everything that’s wrong, yet Dr. Oletta still teaches medicine there,

The pharmacy doesn’t have any medicine. They have no anti-malaria drugs. The have no child antibiotics.  There is no anti-convulsion medicine for epilepsy patients. It’s the same thing with other patients who need special treatment. We don’t have orthoscopes for patients who need surgery, we have to open them up like we did decades ago. With breast cancer surgery we used to just take out the tumors, now we take out the whole breast. We don’t have the X-ray machines to look at patient’s problems. Now, we don’t have the proper treatment for particular patients. We have to treat patients with what medicine and equipment we have. It may not be the proper medicine at that moment but it’s all we have.

The international community and nongovernmental organizations like the World Health Organization are aware of the crisis, but the Maduro Administration continues to ignore the problem,

Since we don’t have the medicines, we must ask for help from the WHO and other nations, but our government will not accept donations.  It’s essential to have these drugs to fight malaria, but even people with money can’t buy the medicine because we don’t have any to buy.

Juan Andres Mejia is a member of the National Assembly for Voluntad Popular,

50 years ago malaria had been controlled in Venezuela and had disappeared.

One of the problems with disease and health problems that we are having, you can’t know the size of it, because the government isn’t publishing any data, concerning the actual problem that we’re facing. It’s huge problem, you just have to go to the streets and talk to anyone, to see if they’ve been able to find any of the medicines they’re looking for lately.  People don’t believe a word Maduro says.  They control most of the media here, they control most of the institutions and using them they repeat their lies again and again, we have enough food to feed three countries and that there is enough medicine here for everyone, and when you go to streets you see that that is the opposite.

Caracas resident Ossy Orozco worked for the Spanish banking conglomerate BBVA for nine years and was part of a once thriving yet small middle class in the Venezuelan capital. The disintegration of health care was the last straw, “I’m afraid to live here. I’m a 34 year old woman and I would like to have a child. Babies. In this country you can get robbed, you can get kidnapped, you can get killed, We don’t have food. We don’t have medicines.”

Dr. Oletta says hundreds of thousands of people like Orozco have left seeking basic health care, security, food, and jobs. Many seek medical care in other countries and never come back. He says the sad irony here is that the WHO declared Venezuela malaria free in the sixties,

50 years ago the illness had been controlled in Venezuela and had disappeared. Venezuela is a good example to the world on how this illness was controlled.

Internationally, doctors, health care administrators and epidemiologists applauded and copied Venezuela’s education, prevention and treatment of the mosquito borne disease. Not anymore.

Oletta could be with his family in Spain, and he would have a lucrative private medical practice there due to a shortage of internists, but he stays in Venezuela and he wants to fix the battered health care system. His eyes welled with tears as he said, “I love my country and will continue fighting for all of Venezuela.”