By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Jan 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rising numbers of babies are dying in Venezuela as its health system collapses, researchers said on Thursday, reversing the country's big reduction infant mortality rates over the past two decades.
The new research, published in The Lancet Global Health journal, said that Venezuela is the only country in South America with infant mortality rates that have risen back to 1990s levels.
Estimates using new data suggest that Venezuela's infant mortality rate - defined as the number of deaths under one year of age - was 21.1 deaths per 1,000 livebirths in 2016 - up by 1.4 times the rate in 2008.
This is the equivalent to levels recorded in the late 1990s, meaning 18 years of progress may have been lost, researchers said.
"During the 2000s, Venezuela had created policies aimed at protecting their most vulnerable populations, but these efforts are not reflected in the avoidable death rates of Venezuelan children seen today," said study author, Jenny Garcia from France's Institut National d'Etudes Demographiques, Universite Paris 1 Pantheon.
"Regrettably, the country is showing a deterioration of child survival for the first time," Garcia said in a statement.
Researchers blamed rising infant mortality rates on reduced state funding for healthcare from 2009 onwards, inflation, shortages of basic medicine, cuts in vaccination campaigns, declining patient-to-doctor ratios and fewer hospital beds.
Venezuela is facing an economic meltdown and is in the throes of political turmoil after Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido swore himself in as interim head of state on Wednesday, leaving Venezuela with two presidents.
Severe food shortages and record hyperinflation in the oil-rich nation have put buying food out of reach for many.
"During important crises, the most common causes of death are the same as those reported in countries with the highest child mortality rates: diarrhoeal diseases, acute respiratory infections, measles, malaria, and severe malnutrition," Garcia said.
"All these elements are present in Venezuela and will certainly adversely affect future infant mortality," she said.
Since 2016, the World Health Organization has reported an increase in infectious and parasitic diseases in Venezuela, which had been controlled or eradicated in previous decades, the study noted.
Due to Venezuela's "strict secrecy policy" and lack of data made public on mortality rates since 2013, it has been difficult to gauge infant mortality rates, the study said.
"This is the first study to attempt to fill this gap and estimate infant mortality using hospital and census data after 2013," the study said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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