“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did”.

— Alexander Fleming

On a September morning in 1928 the exact date varies according to the source , Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming and his assistant, Merlin Price, casually observed something growing on a petri dish which had been carelessly stored during the summer break.

They would change medicine forever.

Few killers are more dangerous than bacteria. It doesn’t matter how important or accomplished you are, these deadly little microbes are equal-opportunity invaders: They’ve taken the lives of everyone from Tutankhamun and Simón Bolivar, to Karl Marx and Otto Von Bismarck. Just in the last century, we developed an effective weapon to counter them, and even now they kill people by the millions.

Antibiotics work by killing bacteria or inhibiting their growth and are usually produced in nature by a variety of organisms. But up until that September morning 89 years ago, we didn’t really know it. Fleming concluded research on something that was merely suspected, managing to isolate the source of so-called “mold juice,” identifying it as a byproduct of the Penicillium fungus. After renaming the juice “Penicillin,” Fleming began a series of attempts to purify the substance, eventually giving up altogether. It would take a whole team of brilliant biochemists and pharmacologists to finally produce a pure, stable form of the molecule that could be used to treat humans, ten years after its discovery.

The first recorded clinical use of antibiotics in Venezuela dates back to 1944, a year before it became widely available to the general public. Before staring at his culture plates, Fleming served as captain of the British medical corps during World War I, watching soldiers die from infected wounds. Today, almost 90 years later, Venezuelan doctors must face similar scenes, since neither penicillin nor any other antibiotic, are easily found in local hospitals or drug stores.

The World Health Organization’s list of Essential Medicines for Venezuela includes 7 different forms of penicillin and its derivatives, all of which are pretty hard to find at any pharmacy.

Part of the problem is that producing antibiotics isn’t just mixing the ingredients; penicillin, and many other antibiotics, come from fungi that can grow virtually everywhere, but to purify and produce a substantial quantity of the needed molecules, you need a complex and expensive infrastructure in a carefully monitored environment. Many pharmaceutical companies that sell antibiotics in Venezuela produce tablets, but the molecules come from abroad.

That’s why, in 2011, the chavista government decided to cut the middleman out and produce the medicines itself, building factories in Anzoátegui, Carabobo and Miranda. In alliance with the Portuguese and Colombian governments, the idea was to buy equipments in Europe and have the production in-house. Eugenia Sader, then Minister for Health, said that the project was already underway, and would be finished by 2012. The only thing existing today from the factories are these lines you’re reading, with money vanishing as of 2015, a classic mark of Sader’s tenure.

That bill is ultimately paid by the innocent. Sick people’s families in Venezuela face frustration after they’ve toured every pharmacy around, only to come back empty-handed and tell their doctors they can’t afford that same mold juice discovered almost a century ago. Just three days of treatment are equivalent to a month’s income. The World Health Organization’s list of Essential Medicines for Venezuela includes 7 different forms of penicillin and its derivatives, all of which are pretty hard to find at any pharmacy, and are plainly nonexistent in the public health system. The government’s carelessness, along with the economic collapse, has turned Venezuelan hospitals into little more than ugly hotels where patients who are fortunate enough to secure a bed can be sick with a roof over their heads.

In a country back to the pre-antibiotic era, we helplessly bear witness, just as Fleming did, to war stories in hospitals where the battle is fought by patients and their families, not only against disease but also against a government that does nothing to protect them.

Happy anniversary this is not.

21 COMMENTS

  1. It is incredible to stop and think that we know a generation of people who grew up without antibiotics. It really is a marker of the speed of human progress, and also how quickly that progress can be undone by human folly.

    • People who know/care about these things (???) say that we are only a generation removed from regressing back to the early 20th century lifestyle.

      Very few people know how to manufacture, let alone manufacture the machinery that manufactures. Food? Who knows how to slaughter a hog, kill a chicken, or grow a tomato plant from seed. (rabbits, anyone?) Medicine? Clothing? Shelter?

      Fortunately, we depend upon the generations before us to make life easier. Unfortunately, the more we depend upon that knowledge, the less self sufficient we become.

  2. Anyone that is sending anything to friends or family in Venezuela should ask their doctor or even their dentist to help them out with prescriptions.
    My dentist has written me azithromycin prescriptions, commonly known as Z-Packs, Amoxycillin and Ceflax.
    Ceflax is a broad spectrum antibiotic that is effective for respiratory tract infections as well as infections on the skin from injuries. One of the people that I send supplies to had a stubborn case of pneumonia that required successive prescriptions of azithromycin. Without the antibiotics, I don’t think he would have lived.
    Walmart and other retailers charge a nominal fee without having to use your health insurance.
    Bacitracin or similar triple antibiotic ointments that are available at the Dollar Stores are something else that should be included at every opportunity. This ointment can prevent a simple injury from becoming a fatal infection if caught in time.
    The lack of effective medicines is creating an environment where communicable diseases that are left untreated may spread to many more people and possibly create a country wide epidemic.
    For those of us not in Venezuela, it is hard to comprehend the utter collapse of the public health care system.
    Small efforts on our part can be lifesaving.

      • It isn’t illegal. Nor unethical. My wife is a physician, and she routinely writes scripts for antibiotics for friends traveling to Africa, South and Central America. It simply removes unnecessary levels of bureaucracy and wealth redistribution. She remains just as liable as a physician who gets paid to write out a prescription. Getting paid to write a prescription doesn’t make it safer, more legal or more ethical

          • Ira
            Antibiotics and the other medicines that I am sourcing, aren’t as controlled as some other medicines.
            The risk of abuse is not the same as opiate drugs.
            A friend of mine that is a doctor in a hospital in Michigan, advised me that the VA hospital may be able to help. Apparently they have large inventories that are culled for products that have reached their expiry date.
            Many of these drugs are still effective.
            Z-packs in the original packaging last 3 years without any deterioration and individual pills that are bottled by a pharmacy are still fully effective for at least 2 years.
            I have written to a few of the drug manufacturers with no success. Most have programs in place that make donations to non-profit organizations that do varied relief work. The lack of a non-profit status has prevented me from acquiring any donations. The registered relief agencies aren’t allowed to provide relief in Venezuela.
            A frustrating Catch-22.
            I just keep asking. E-mails don’t cost me anything to send. I keep hoping that my request will land in an in box of someone that for whatever reason will be motivated to help.

          • These are not patients of hers. They are friends travelling to areas of the world where antibiotics are routinely dispensed. She’s saving them the cost and hassle of seeing their doctor to get a prescription.

            What these people do with the prescriptions she writes is their business. In much of the world, antibiotics are sold OTC.

      • My dentist or doctor writes the prescription for me. He understands what I am doing with them. Then I fill the prescriptions and include them in packages I send.
        Other meds that are critically needed are diabetes medicines and blood pressure meds.
        Friends of mine help as much as they can by refilling prescriptions as often as possible and giving me the extra to send. Metformin (Glucophage) is the diabetes medicine that I have been able to get the most of.
        If you talk to people or your doctor, you will be surprised how helpful many of them can be.
        Many times doctors have samples that the drug reps have left them and they will give them to you to help.

      • No one in Venezuela is cheating prescriptions because they’re addicts but because they can’t wait 6 or 7 months for a public hospital to hand them the prescription that’ll be confiscated at any pharmacy once they manage to buy the medicine because that’s the “cuban revolutionary method to avoid the stupid venecos to misuse their meds”.

        They also don’t do that to hoard and smuggle medicines, the chavista regime already does that.

  3. Our church missionaries in VZ bring back with them nearly a dozen different drugs that are paid for by our church. They donate every vial to the local hospital and clinic. (I won’t post the name as I don’t want them to become a target) $1000 in simple drugs in the US makes an incredible difference. But there is no way this is a scalable solution. Only postponing the finale.

    The thank you letter we get back from the doctors/nurses reads like a horror story of cases where they try and keep it quiet so that the most needed/critical cases can be dealt with first. they have all asked that we continue to help local hospitals first, as they are on the front lines.

    We had one “currier” load up a 65L backpack full of medicines, bandages, and soaps. The minister there in VZ had to pay double the “fee” to get it safely across the border and promise to keep items in reserve for the currier’s family if they get sick.

    Big thanks to the Columbians for helping make this possible. There is now way these items could have made it into VZ through normal channels or even through the US embassy. (which is watched 24/7 for people and vehicles)

  4. I’ve tried several times to send medicine from Spain to Venezuela but my wife’s sister just can’t pay for it to be “naturalized” when it arrives in Valencia. They ask ridiculous amounts of money for it.

    • We have given up sending CARE packages to Venezuela. They would make it to customs, but tragically, they would get “misplaced” and never make it out to delivery. We now send cash, hidden in mailables where low level Chavista jobsworths never look. Not that it helps with things that can’t be found at any price, but US dollars do make life easier for those relatives who remain behind.

      For things of higher value that money can’t buy easily (insulin, etc) , we have paid couriers or relatives who fly in on local (PTY to MAR) flights.

    • Everything that I send is simply labeled as household goods. The regime has restrictions on just about everything coming into the country. They even require a license to send food.
      I figure telling them what I am sending, by doing their paperwork, makes it that much easier for someone to target it.

  5. The church we help support has had 1 out of every 5 food or baby formula shipments ripped off or confiscated. Its getting so bad, we dare not endanger the curriers any more with large shipments.

    I won’t describe how they do it (“opsec”) but only to say they do it when they can and try to never use the same route/method more than once in the same month.

    • Mitchell
      I am using a shipper in Miami. They do air freight and transport by cargo ship.
      The customs delays are getting worse. The pilfering incidents while shipments transit customs are also increasing.
      The greed that the authorities act on when confiscating such a high percentage of goods, will eventually lead to very little being sent to the country.
      Recently, there was a situation that required medicine to get to Caracas ASAP. Friends of mine in Ft. Lauderdale saved the day. Through their network of associates, a person that was traveling to Venezuela was found and he agreed to bring the medicines. We were lucky. So many airlines are reducing and eliminating service, that I worry about being able to use this method in the future.
      I would appreciate any help you can provide with introducing me to a courier that could be used should this same type of situation arise in the future. Sadly, I expect these types of situations to become more frequent.
      I am at a disadvantage in that I do not speak Spanish.
      CC has my permission to provide you with my e-mail details.
      Thank you.
      John

      • Honestly, the best thing to do is work with a local church that has missionaries or contacts through Columbia. The Catholic diocese s and doctors without borders are far more reliable and can keep contacts safe.

        Start there. And be prepared to meet with lots of resistance at first.

        When our members were in a trip to Columbia, we had to work through local congregations near the border.

        None of this goes overnight. You just have to keep pushing.

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