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Triple Whammy: COVID-19 Adds To Difficulties Diabetics Face In Venezuela

Medications are not always available in the midst of political and economic turmoil, a situation made worse by the pandemic.

Venezuela has faced an ongoing political and economic crisis that has led many to seek refuge in other countries. Those who stayed home must find ways to cope with their daily problems, including chronic diseases such as diabetes.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and its associated lockdowns, has made dealing with diabetes even more difficult.

“Among the most worrying aspects of this pandemic there is the impact on people with diabetes and other non-communicable diseases,” said Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization. “Although the exact number of victims is not yet fully known, we are very concerned about the consequences of adverse lifestyle changes, interruptions in healthcare services and in the supply chain that limited access to health care services and medicines.”

Etienne called for urgent action to maintain essential health services, to ensure continuity of care for people living with diabetes.

Diabetes is a silent and progressive illness that can cause death if it is not detected and controlled in time. It is a chronic metabolic disease that leads to elevated blood glucose levels.

There are two variants: In type 1 diabetes, the patient’s pancreas stops producing the insulin that regulates blood sugar. Patients with type 1 diabetes must take insulin once or several times a day.

Type 2 diabetes patients have a reduced ability to produce insulin, or their bodies are resistant to it.

Diabetics must measure their blood sugar regularly to keep track of their disease. (Mykenzie Johnson/Unsplash)

In Latin America and the Caribbean, 41 million adults suffer from the disease, according to the Pan-American Health Organization. Half are unaware of their condition and the long-term complications it may present.

That includes Margarita Marrero, originally from Los Teques, Venezuela.

“I was diagnosed with diabetes at 55. I could say that I was diagnosed in time because I have kept the disease under control and have lived normally for 20 more years,” said Marrero. “Over the years, I have changed the treatment because I also suffer from hypertension and take cholesterol medications, so I have to be very well controlled.”

Venezuela’s previously mentioned political and economic troubles add a layer of difficulty to patients’ fight against diabetes.

“It has been difficult for me to follow the treatment to the letter in recent years,” said Marrero. “Sometimes there are no medications available, or I have had to change the formula. On occasions, my children have sent medicines to me from abroad.”

Some patients treat their diabetes with insulin shots, which can be expensive and difficult to find in countries with social unrest. (Sam Moqadam/Unsplash)

People with diabetes are at risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks or strokes. Hence, the importance of detecting the disease early and controlling it with medication, diet and exercise.

“Patients are also prone to loss of sight, foot or leg amputations due to nerve and blood vessel damage, or kidney failure,” said Dr. Yojan Martínez, a Venezuelan surgeon.

Faced with all these risks, Marrero takes six tablets a day, one for diabetes control, three for hypertension, the fifth for cholesterol and, finally, a 100-mg Aspirin as an antiplatelet.

“I am old, but I want to live with dignity, without discomfort that I can avoid,” said the Venezuelan. “My diet is not strict, but it is the healthiest I can have. I am an old woman who takes care of herself. I do not abuse sweets because I know it is against my health.”

Dr. Martínez’s recommendations include avoiding risky behaviors such as eating high-fat diets, drinking alcoholic beverages, smoking, and having a sedentary lifestyle.

Though the situation is particularly acute in Venezuela, diabetes is also growing problem globally.

(Translated and edited by Gabriela Olmos; edited by Matthew B. Hall.)