* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.The high price of condoms in troubled Venezuela will push up teenage pregnancies and backstreet abortions
BOGOTA - With a pack of 36 condoms costing $755 online, the prohibitive cost of safe sex in Venezuela threatens to increase teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS rates and the number of backstreet abortions, says local family planning NGO Plafam.
Venezuela's ailing economy, hard hit by a collapse in crude oil prices, has led to panic buying and unprecedented shortages of condoms, along with basic goods such as toilet paper, sugar, milk and flour.
On the MercadoLibre website, where Venezuelans shop for goods in short supply, a 36-pack of Trojan condoms costs $755 at the official exchange rate, according to reports on Bloomberg.
On the streets of the capital Caracas, a pack of three condoms is going for $16 at the official exchange rate, says Edward Romero, head of Plafam.
"It's almost impossible to buy condoms and contraceptive pills and other forms of contraception in chemists in Caracas and across much of Venezuela. We started seeing serious shortages from December onwards. The situation is critical," Romero told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Caracas.
The high cost and acute shortage of condoms is bound to have an impact on sexual and reproductive health, in a country with one of South America's highest rates of HIV infection and teenage pregnancy, he said.
Nearly 30 percent of all pregnancies in Venezuela occur among 15- to 19-year-olds, and the country has the third highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America behind Nicaragua and Honduras, Romero said.
"In a matter of months, we expect to see a rise in teenage pregnancy rates, which in turn affects school leaving rates as pregnant girls are more likely to drop out of school. We'll also see a rise in unwanted pregnancies and clandestine abortions where women are exposed to risks and even death," he said.
In Venezuela abortion is allowed only if a woman's life is in danger.
A shortage of condoms could also lead to a rise in sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
Venezuela has the fourth-highest number of people living with AIDS in Latin America, according to HIV/AIDS charity AVERT.
"We also expect to see an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. People can't afford the price of condoms and other medicines in short supply," said Romero.
The steep fall in oil prices means Venezuela has fewer dollars flowing into the country, and restrictive currency controls imposed by the government mean there is less cash to spend on imports.
Nationalisation has stifled the private sector's production of goods, and food is in short supply because Venezuela had become over-reliant on imports.
Standing in line for hours at supermarkets and chemists has become part of daily life for many Venezuelans.
"People are queuing for anything they can get," said Romero, who queued for five hours to buy medicine earlier this week.
Shortages have also led to a flourishing black market, with inflated prices many Venezuelans simply can't afford.
"People who can leave the country then come back to sell goods on the black market. Condoms are available on the black market but at a very high price," Romero said.
As public hospitals and clinics don't hand out free condoms, Venezuelans are increasingly relying on NGOs like Plafam to get free or low cost contraception.
People visiting Plafam's four clinics in Caracas receive a free condom each and the clinics sell condoms for around $0.40 each, said Romero.
But for how long this can continue is uncertain.
Last year, Plafam received around 200,000 condoms from its partner organisation, International Planned Parenthood Federation, and other NGOs.
"We have a small reserve of condoms left, around 30,000," Romero said.
"That's not a lot for a population of 30 million, of which 60 percent is of reproductive age."
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Tim Pearce)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.