Struggling to survive, Venezuelans take the black market blood risk

It's not that there’s no blood; the government hasn't supplied healthcare centers with reagents anymore. Urgent changes are needed while people pay with their lives.

Photo: Pixabay, retrieved

Blood isn’t scarce in Venezuela, but reagents to analyze it are. People can’t even get a transfusion without the risk of contracting a disease.

Whether it’s the lack of cash, public transport, water, electric power, security, food or medicines, shortages rule Venezuela. Our hospitals are in ruins and now, they’re also in need of clinically tested blood.

And not for lack of donors, or empty blood banks; as Astrid Cantor explained a few weeks ago, bioanalysts don’t have reagents to analyze the blood, and current stores will last one more week at best.

The crisis was severe in the first two months of the year, there was no blood available, so people crossed the borders in search for packs of it. Some resorted to the black market: the price for 300 cc of tested blood could be as much as Bs. 5,000,000 back then, between $20 and $23, which represented 20 months of minimum wage.

The crisis somewhat abated when Nicolás Maduro ordered the purchase of reagents to cover March, although not all hospitals were supplied. The Health Ministry distributed most of it in the capital and sent a few supplies to other areas of the country, as a sort of patch to cover the hole chavismo itself caused through sheer mismanagement and controls.

In fact, Rafael Fuentes lost his wife, a transplant patient, because of this problem. He spent six days trying to find blood in every hospital in Caracas and, when he found it, his wife was already too ill due to the rejection of the kidney she’d gotten five years ago. Luz Marina could’ve been saved, but she lost the battle because of supply shortages.

On the black market, the price for 300 cc of tested blood could be as much as Bs. 5,000,000, or some $20 – 20 months of minimum wage.

Judith León, head of the Association of Bioanalysts of Caracas, says that the government isn’t distributing the necessary supplies to test the blood according to international standards.

“That’s why we’re in crisis, in the worst situation of our health care history,” said León, adding that out of the seven reagents required in order to clear donated blood from contamination, “right now, we only have four to test for HIV, syphilis and hepatitis B and C.”

Without reagents, labs are also collapsing. Over 40% of private labs are closed, precisely because it’s impossible to perform blood tests.

If someone, such as an hemophiliac, should need to undergo surgery or receive a transfusion, the odds get quite dim: “If the families authorize the use of that blood, it’s up to them. We’re doing wartime medicine, without protocols, and Venezuelans don’t have the guarantee of a better quality of life,” the bioanalyst remarked.

Rafael Fuente’s case is hardly unique. The patients of the Neurosurgery service at the J.M. de los Ríos Children’s Hospital can’t be taken to surgery due to the lack of tested blood. Parents roam blood banks in search for blood packs which might cost Bs 10,000,000 as of April, about $20.

If the families authorize the use of that blood, it’s up to them. We’re doing wartime medicine, without protocols, and Venezuelans don’t have guarantees.

Dr. Maribel Meléndez, general secretary of the Venezuelan Society of Hematology, said that, for instance, the Miguel Pérez Carreño hospital, part of the Institute of Social Security, received a batch of reagents, but only because someone in the government had a relative there. “That’s why we’ve had access to blood in recent days. The tragedy will resume this week, however.”

“They’re keeping whatever remains. They say there’s enough for a month and a half. The government is only making emergency purchases, it’s been happening since 2010 but it’s been getting worse since 2015.”

Both public and private blood banks used to issue a report of how many tests they performed over a three-month period. That allowed the Health Ministry to monitor supplies, and they purchased supplies according to demand.

None of that is happening anymore. The Ministry doesn’t even inquire about the needs of each institution, nor are they demanding donor figures from each health care center. “I think that, if they were effective, they should request the report of the requirements of each bank and that would help them make regulated purchases, before reaching a crisis.”

Venezuelans are selling everything to survive in this race against time. When we manage to find medicines, we can’t get X-ray scans and, if we need a transfusion, we’d be risking a cure that might be literally worse than the disease.

Mabel Sarmiento

Mabel Sarmiento is an UCAB-trained journalist with more than 20 years' experience covering community news, the environment, health, education and infrastructure.