MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Here's one sign of how deep the crisis in Venezuela. Its health care system has collapsed. Regional officials say a measles outbreak that began there was not controlled. It's now spreading throughout South America, and some basic medical supplies and medications, even surgical gloves, are no longer available in clinics in Venezuela. NPR's Jason Beaubien has more.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: By just about every measurement possible, Venezuela's once impressive medical system has fallen apart. The Latin American nation with the largest oil reserves in the world is now dealing with an ongoing measles outbreak that last year sickened thousands of people and killed at least 74. Clinics have run out of basic surgical supplies and antibiotics. Routine vaccination campaigns have been suspended. Even patients dependent on lifesaving HIV medications have seen supplies of their anti-AIDS drugs disappear. Dr. Kathleen Page recently visited camps in northern Brazil for some of the 3 million Venezuelans who fled the country.
KATHLEEN PAGE: It was not a doctor in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic started, but I know what happened, and I felt that in these wards I was going back to the 1980s.
BEAUBIEN: Page, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins medical school, says she was shocked to see AIDS patients from Venezuela dying of opportunistic infections.
PAGE: Chronic diarrhea, infections in their brain, things that we know are treatable and preventable.
BEAUBIEN: Page traveled to the Brazilian-Venezuelan border late last year as part of a fact-finding trip for Human Rights Watch.
PAGE: I interviewed over 100 people crossing the border, and I would ask them, why did you come? And ubiquitously, the answer was food or health care.
BEAUBIEN: Many people told her they'd been surviving for months on a diet only of yucca, a rugged shrub that has a potato-like root. In the late 1990s, Hugo Chavez promised free universal health care in Venezuela, and the country quickly met most of the U.N.'s health care targets by 2010. But since then, the country's much vaunted health care system has collapsed. Infant mortality, the rate at which kids under the age of 1 are dying, is widely viewed as a barometer of a nation's overall health. A recent study in Lancet Global Health found that the nation's infant mortality rate has risen all the way back to where it was in the 1990s. Jenny Garcia is one of the authors of that study.
JENNY GARCIA: This is shocking. I mean, we have lost 18 years of progress in infant mortality. It's shocking.
BEAUBIEN: And kids are suffering and dying from simple things. At the Brazilian border, Dr. Page met a woman and her 10-year-old daughter who'd just come out of Venezuela. The girl was in a wheelchair and needed a catheter.
PAGE: They had been using the same catheter for a year. These catheters are supposed to be changed every time you use them. And now she had an infection that was affecting her kidney, and there was no antibiotics. So they actually pushed her, you know, 200 miles across the border.
BEAUBIEN: Two hundred miles on foot for a catheter and some antibiotics. Page, who is originally from Uruguay, says the health conditions she saw among the Venezuelans were startling, particularly given Venezuela's reputation as a relatively wealthy Latin American country. And these refugees weren't fleeing a war zone.
PAGE: The devastation that you're seeing is not war. It's mismanagement. It's poor economic decisions. It's corruption. There's a lot of complicated factors, but it's totally manmade. This is not a natural disaster or something that was inevitable.
BEAUBIEN: And that makes the Venezuelan health crisis, she says, even more disturbing. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF LUKE HOWARD'S "A SOFTER WORLD")