Nurse Hitchhikes to Help Girl Whose Photo Drew Attention to Hunger in Venezuela – The New York Times


CARACAS, Venezuela — When an image of the young Venezuelan girl first began to circulate last week, the reaction was almost instantaneous.

She is 2 years old, but malnutrition and untreated illness have wasted her body back to a state of virtual infancy. She spends her day on her back in her family’s dilapidated hut.

Her name is Anailin Nava, and when readers saw the photograph of her in a New York Times article on the economic collapse of Venezuela, many had a common impulse: Helping her country out of a protracted humanitarian crisis may be difficult, but surely there was something that could be done for this one child.

On Sunday, aid began to arrive.

[You can read the original article on Venezuela’s economic collapse here.]

Gasoline shortages have crippled much of Venezuela, but Fabiola Molero, a nurse with a Roman Catholic aid group, Caritas, packed a bag with a scale and a 15-day supply of nutritional supplements, milk and food, and hitchhiked from the western city of Maracaibo to Toas Island, where Anailin lives.

Ms. Molero has been working as a nurse in public hospitals for 20 years, but three years ago she quit and became a volunteer with Caritas so she could fight the hunger that was devastating the country.

“I worked in a hospital and quit because I couldn’t handle the fact that children were dying in my arms for lack of food,” she said.

When she set off on Sunday, her goal was to help Anailin, and also assess the condition of other children in her community.

The state of Zulia, which Toas is part of, has been particularly hard hit by the country’s economic collapse. The island has been practically cut off from the mainland after the boats that served as public transport broke down for a lack of spare parts.

Bags of subsidized food from the government arrive every five months, but they are consumed by the families within a week, according to Anailin’s mother, Maibeli Nava, and her neighbors.

Ms. Molero said Anailin’s case was one of the worst she had seen. The family often could not afford to feed her more than once a day — and sometimes only had rice or cornmeal to eat.

The child’s severe malnutrition case was complicated by a genetic neurological disease, which causes convulsions and muscular problems, and makes digestion difficult, the nurse said.

Anailin, who weighs half of what she should, is too weak to travel, Ms. Molero said. But she can be treated at home until she is strong enough to be taken to a neurologist, she added.

“My baby had deteriorated and was in a very bad state,” said her mother, Ms. Nava, who is 25. “I thought my daughter was going to die. She didn’t even give me her hand when I tried playing with her.”

The arrival of the nurse, and the food, made an immediate difference, Ms. Nava said: “Now she’s cheerful.”

Ms. Molero said her arrival prompted neighbors, among them the mothers and older people of the area, to line up outside the Navas’ house, in one of Toas’ fishing hamlets. They wanted to ask for help, she said.

“My neighbors are dying because of lack of medicine,” Ms. Nava said.

The economic crisis has left the island without any medical supplies despite having two hospitals and three public first aid clinics. Toas used to be a tourist destination, but the deterioration of the country’s economy and infrastructure have left it with frequent and prolonged blackouts in electricity and cell service.

“I’m worried because there are a lot pregnant women and the hospital is not working,” said Ms. Molero.

Out of 26 children evaluated by Ms. Molero, 10 were malnourished. Almost all of them had blisters and abscesses in their skin caused by the poor water quality, the nurse said. The island’s desalination plant has been out of operation for years.

“The condition of our children gets worse every day,” said Ms. Molero, 43. Other volunteers who worked with her are planning a medical visit to the island to take nutritional supplements and to evaluate another 40 children.

Ms. Molero said shortages of dairy products, which used to come from the mainland, really hurt the children. Without milk, the most vulnerable families are resorting to making baby food out of plantain powder, she said.

And the gasoline shortage makes it very difficult to deliver help, the nurse said.

“We’re working by the strength of our nails here because we barely have any resources,” she said.

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