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Hospital shortages a death sentence for Venezuelan children

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Caracas (AFP)

Gilberto Altuve places his son Erick's toys on a white cloth alongside cards from friends and the mask he used while waiting for a desperately needed bone marrow transplant that never came.

He died aged 11 on May 26 while waiting in a Venezuelan hospital, after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in February.

He was not the only child in May to lose his battle with the disease. So too did Giovanny Figuera, Robert Redondo and Yeiderberth Requena.

"He needed a bone marrow transplant, the disease was advancing every day," Altuve, 38, told AFP, adding that his son had suffered from immunodeficiency since he was very young.

That was the problem that sent him to the J. M. de los Rios children's hospital in Caracas in January.

The hospital detected his cancer and kept him under observation in the hope of being able to send him to Italy for the transplant that could have saved his life.

But the program agreed in 2010 between Italy and Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA was suspended last year with Caracas owing Rome 10.7 million euros (around $12 million).

"We have a government that helps the whole world, but what does it give children?" said Altuve, fighting back tears at his son's wake in his simple home in Petare, a poor Caracas neighborhood.

Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro blamed the unpaid Italian debt on a Portuguese bank blocking payments due to US sanctions aimed at trying to force him from power.

But Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido claims the initiative had already run into problems in 2016 due to "a lack of supplies and bureaucratic obstacles."

US sanctions were only applied in 2017.

- 'You live with fear' -

While Maduro and Guaido trade accusations, Altuve says "you shouldn't look for culprits where there are none."

"But neither should you be ignorant, knowing that they have the abilities to provide help," he added, his face swollen from crying.

A builder by trade, Altuve learned to manicure to survive Venezuela's economic meltdown under Maduro.

The country has suffered five years of recession while a quarter of its 30 million population is in need of aid, the United Nations says.

Inflation that the International Monetary Fund predicts will reach a staggering 10 million percent this year has left salaries and savings virtually worthless while people face shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.

Oil production, on which the country is almost entirely dependent, has crashed from a high of 3.2 million barrels per day in 2008 to just 840,000 in March.

Altuve's family depends on a government food box and other subsidies to survive.

At the J. M. de los Rios hospital, 26 children need transplants.

There, Siolis Alvarez is terrified that her nine-year-old son Alejandro, suffering from acute lymphocytic leukemia, will be the next victim.

"The same thing could happen to all of us. You live with that fear," Alvarez told AFP as she tried to calm her worried son.

In a bid to find better care, she took him last year to Falcon state in the west, but there she found a hospital with no supplies that barely appeared to be functioning.

Venezuela lacks 85 percent of the medicine it needs, according to the pharmaceutical industry.

Alejandro's chemotherapy treatment is paid for by NGOs as Alvarez cannot afford the $800 needed to import it from Colombia.

- 'Others are going to die' -

It's not just their families left devastated by children's deaths.

"Seeing this kind of thing breaks you, it marks you," says Adriana Ladera, a 30-year-old nurse.

She doesn't want to return to the hospital where she has worked for the last five years. Sometimes, she says, they don't even have hand soap.

"There are days when you want to run away and never return," she said through sobs.

But Ladera keeps going back despite the perennial lack of supplies and scarce food that staff can offer patients.

"Others are going to die," says 33-year-old nurse Marta Vasquez. "They won't be the last ones."

But the pain doesn't end with a child's death.

Erick Altuve's body remained in his home for two days after his death.

His father paid for a plot at the main Guarenas cemetary some 27 kilometers (17 miles) from Petare, but the owner then asked for more money before giving it to him.

After delaying the funeral by a day, the owner told the grieving parents to "put ice on (the body) so it doesn't rot."

Altuve had relied on donations just to pay for the coffin.

"These sort of things break you," he whispered.

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