“We’re Practising Medicine From The 1940s”: Women Suffer Unnecessary Mastectomies In Venezuela

An economic crisis means that many Venezuelan breast cancer patients are no longer offered radiotherapy

Women in Venezuela are being given unnecessary mastectomies rather than less invasive breast cancer treatments, according to a new report by the Associated Press – because there is no money to maintain and repair radiation machines.

Venezuela is a socialist country with universal free health care, but serious economic problems mean that over half the radiation machines in the country’s public hospitals have fallen into disrepair. Doctors say that when they treat breast cancer, they often have no option but to remove the breast altogether, including lymph nodes and the underlying muscle in the chest wall. This is in sharp contrast to a wealthier country such as the United States, where only a third of breast cancer patients treated with surgery undergo a mastectomy.

Oncologist Gabriel Romero of the Dr Luis Razetti Oncology Center in Caracas told the AP: “You don’t feel comfortable with it, because you’re making a decision that goes against your professional judgment… We’re practicing medicine from the 1940s here, and we know that’s not right.” His clinic has a linear accelerator machine that was once used to offer radiotherapy treatment, but hasn’t been working since November. “It doesn’t make you feel good,” adds Gerardo Hernandez, former president of the Venezuela Cancer Society. “But for breast tumours, without the option of radiation, it would be irresponsible not to do a mastectomy.”

Venezuela has suffered from the recent global crash in the price of oil, which accounts for 95% of the country’s exports, and from a severe currency crisis. The economic situation is affecting all areas of medical care; heart surgeons who would previously have used stents to open arteries are now being forced to perform coronary bypass surgeries, because stents are in short supply.

Most of Venezuela’s linear accelerator machines are under contract to be maintained by an equipment firm called Meditron; the report claims that Meditron hasn’t been able to import parts since October, because the government hasn’t approved its access to foreign currency. According to a report sponsored by the Pan American Health Organization, Venezuela has seen one of the steepest increases in breast cancer mortality in Latin America.

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