World

As Venezuela collapses, children are dying of hunger

Children ate lunch at a free soup kitchen in a slum in La Guaira, Venezuela.
Meridith Kohut/New York Times
Children ate lunch at a free soup kitchen in a slum in La Guaira, Venezuela.

SAN CASIMIRO, Venezuela — Hunger, which has stalked Venezuela for years, is now killing the nation’s children at an alarming rate, doctors in the country’s public hospitals say.

Venezuela has been shuddering since its economy began to collapse in 2014. Riots and protests over the lack of affordable food, excruciating long lines for basic provisions, soldiers posted outside bakeries, and angry crowds ransacking grocery stores have rattled cities, providing a public display of the depths of the crisis.

But deaths from malnutrition have remained a closely guarded secret by the Venezuelan government. In a five-month investigation by The New York Times, doctors at 21 public hospitals in 17 states across the country said that their emergency rooms were being overwhelmed by children with severe malnutrition — a condition they had rarely encountered before the economic crisis began.

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Parents go days without eating, shriveling to the weight of children themselves.

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Women line up at sterilization clinics to avoid having children they cannot feed. Boys leave home and join street gangs to scavenge for scraps, their bodies bearing the scars of knife fights with competitors. Crowds of adults storm dumpsters after restaurants close. Babies die because it is hard to find or afford infant formula, even in emergency rooms.

“Sometimes they die in your arms just from dehydration,” Dr. Milagros Hernández said in the emergency room of a children’s hospital in the northern city of Barquisimeto.

As the economic crisis began to intensify in 2015 and 2016, the number of cases of severe malnutrition at the nation’s leading pediatric health center in the capital more than tripled, doctors say. This year looks even worse.

In Venezuela, extreme malnutrition “is directly related to the shortages and inflation,” said Dr. Ingrid Soto de Sanabria, chief of the hospital’s nutrition, growth, and development department.

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The Venezuelan government has tried to cover up the extent of the crisis by enforcing a near-total blackout of health statistics, and by creating a culture in which doctors are often afraid to register cases and deaths that may be associated with the government’s failures.

But the statistics that have come out are staggering. In the Ministry of Health’s 2015 annual report, the mortality rate for children younger than 4 weeks old had increased a hundredfold, from 0.02 percent in 2012 to just over 2 percent. Maternal mortality had increased nearly fivefold in the same period.

For almost two years, the government did not publish a single epidemiological bulletin tracking statistics like infant mortality.

Then in April, a link suddenly appeared on the Health Ministry’s official website, leading to the unpublished bulletins. They showed that 11,446 children younger than 1 had died in 2016 — a 30 percent increase in one year — as the economic crisis accelerated.

The new findings made national and international headlines before the government declared that the website had been hacked, and the reports were swiftly removed. The health minister was fired and the military was put in charge of monitoring the bulletins. No reports have been released since.