In Caracas, Sick Humans Are Resorting to Dog Medicine

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(Bloomberg) -- Editor’s Note: There are few places as chaotic or dangerous as Venezuela. “Life in Caracas” is a new series of short stories that seeks to capture the surreal quality of living in a land in total disarray.

For my friend Elena, it was the ultimate indignity. She showed me the prednisone she takes for severe allergies: The photo on the package was of a frisky puppy.

Like everyone else in the city, she hits at least a half-dozen pharmacies when she’s on the hunt for medicine, either prescription drugs or over-the-counter basics. Like everyone else, she usually walks away empty-handed. Those with the resources order from Spain products that they can’t find here, and those with connections ask Americans who visit to pack luxuries such as NyQuil and Excedrin.

And others go to the vet. It’s common now, turning to veterinarians and pet stores because pharmacists rarely have the goods, and black-market peddlers charge exorbitant rates for items of questionable provenance. So people swallow antibiotics made for dogs and painkillers made for cats.

“I’m outraged that I have to take medicine for animals,” Elena told me. She teared up. Her 18-year-old daughter, who has hepatitis, resorts to them, too. “It’s terrible that we have to do this.”

Pet drugs can be quite similar to those fashioned for humans — if, as local vet Fernando Navia put it, “there are good standards and good manufacturing.” In Venezuela, those are big ifs. Even in the best of cases, there can be vast differences in dosages and inactive ingredients. But the crucial factor is that animal meds aren’t imported through government-regulated channels and so are, relatively speaking, widely available.

Physicians are both horrified and resigned. Stewart Sembergman, a doctor at a public hospital in Caracas, said he tells patients that pet pharmaceuticals should be their last option — realizing how flimsy the advice is. “It’s worse not to take any medicine. In this crisis, we have to use any resource.”

The government hasn’t publicly recognized the medicine shortage — or those of food or cash or car parts or building supplies or anything else. A few weeks ago, I was at a press conference at which President Nicolas Maduro denied there’s any kind of humanitarian crisis in the country.

But my social media sites are flooded with pleas. “Does anyone have access to blood-pressure medicine for my father, who just had a heart attack?” “Can you contribute to this Go Fund Me campaign for my mother, who has cancer and needs chemotherapy?”

There are scattered street protests, like the one a few days ago that people with Parkinson’s disease staged outside United Nations headquarters in Caracas. They asked for help getting the drugs they need, some holding signs that said, “I do not want to die.”

So what Elena is doing makes sense. I have two healthy, happy rescue dogs. If I get sick, I won’t hesitate to go to their vet.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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