CARACAS, Venezuela – When Jesus Eduardo Rodriguez could no longer find his lifesaving HIV medicine in Venezuela, a country where everything from chicken to aspirin is in short supply, he turned to Google about a month ago looking for hope. What he found were stories about a Brazilian doctor using a plant called bay cedar, or guasimo, to treat his HIV-positive patients.
Out of options, Rodriguez started self-medicating with bay cedar. Buying the dark green leaves at the market, he mixes them with water in a blender and drinks the pungent brew three times a day.
"Ever since I started taking it, I've been feeling better," said Rodriguez, 50, who was diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus, which can lead to AIDS, in 2013. "Maybe this is the remedy that God sent me after all of my prayers?"
That Rodriguez and others like him are resorting to desperate DIY medicine is one more sign of how grave Venezuela's economic crisis has become. Even as the South American nation sits atop a sea of crude, decades of mismanagement and corruption have gutted a health care system that used to be the envy of the region.
Now, even basic medicine such as antibiotics and insulin can be hard or impossible to find. Doctors are fleeing in droves to escape hyperinflation and hunger. Those who do stay say they're hamstrung by constant shortages. Health care workers in different parts of the country have gone on strike more than 580 times this year demanding pay increases – but also bare necessities such as bandages, painkillers and clean water.
For people with chronic diseases such as HIV, the crisis can be deadly. As reports of HIV-related complications and deaths rise, it's as if Venezuela has stepped back in time, said Jesus Aguais, the founder of Aid for AIDS, an international nonprofit that delivers unused HIV medication from abroad to needy Venezuelans.
"It's like Venezuela has returned to the 1980s, when people used to take shark cartilage and cat's claw to treat HIV," before anti-retroviral medication became the norm, he said. "This crisis is incredibly profound."
The situation is even more tragic because Venezuela was once a regional leader in HIV care. In 1999, under late President Hugo Chavez, the government launched the National AIDS Program that provided free drugs to some 77,000 HIV patients.
But amid declining oil prices, corruption, and draconian price and currency controls, the government is running out of cash to import lifesaving drugs. President Nicolas Maduro blames the country's woes on U.S. financial sanctions and "economic warfare" being waged by his foes. Even so, the government has turned down offers of international aid.
That has made the work of nonprofits – groups that are essentially smuggling drugs into the country – all the more vital.
At the beginning of 2018, less than 30 percent of HIV patients registered with the government's free medication program were receiving any treatment, said Mauricio Gutierrez, an HIV and political activist in Caracas. Seven months later, as medicine shortages became even more acute, virtually no one can get anti-retroviral medication.
"Once again, we're starting to see the devastating effects of ... HIV, and we're seeing people with HIV dying," he said. "These are deaths that could have been avoided."
Battered by growing health care protests, Maduro announced last Saturday he was earmarking the equivalent of $93 million for "high cost" oncology, transplant and HIV drugs. But it's unclear how quickly the medicine will make it to the country, or how long it might last.
No one's sure exactly how many people in Venezuela suffer from HIV. The country's Health Ministry stopped producing reliable information years ago. A government presentation on the AIDS crisis from 2014 said there were 101,871 people living with HIV at the time, and that that there had been 27,000 HIV and AIDS-related deaths from 1983 to 2011.
Since then, the number of those carrying HIV has undoubtedly grown as condoms are scarce and prohibitively expensive, and public health and HIV awareness campaigns have ground to a halt, said Jonathan Rodriguez, the president of Stop HIV, a Venezuelan nonprofit.
Many doctors have fled the country and few HIV specialists remain, he said. Hospitals no longer have the tests needed to diagnose HIV, and most clinics don't have baby formula – critical for infants born to HIV-infected mothers, as breast feeding can, in some cases, transmit the virus.
"I don't see any reason out there to give us hope," Rodriguez said. "Even though there isn't any reliable information, we're very worried that HIV is on the rise."
The Caracas man who began self-medicating with bay cedar leaves was diagnosed with HIV five years ago after he developed histoplasmosis, a respiratory disease. When doctors discovered he also had HIV, his CD4 count, a measure of white blood cells, was 189. Anything below 200 is considered AIDS.
He was put on a potent cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs and the disease receded. But about a year ago, the medication became impossible to find. When Rodriguez stumbled across the information on the internet about bay cedar leaves, he passed it along to other HIV sufferers and his doctor, Carlos Perez.
Speaking from Caracas, Perez said he has about 160 HIV patients, and most of them are experimenting with bay cedar. The treatment has been used in Brazil and other places as a "complement" to anti-retroviral medication, he said. In Venezuela, it's a last resort.
He said that many of his patients reported having a greater appetite, less pain and more energy after drinking brews made with bay cedar leaves or bark. And there's some scientific basis for the treatment. Bay cedar leaves are thought to be rich in tannins and polyphenols, which attack viruses, he explained, and there are ongoing studies looking at the impact of polyphenols on HIV.
Due to the "exorbitant costs" of testing HIV viral load in Venezuela, however, Perez said he had no conclusive evidence that the bay cedar treatment was working in his patients.
Rodriguez, a former airline employee, said several of his friends have died since 2017, due in part to the medicine shortage. And he blames the government – and its unwillingness to either fix the economy or concede power – for the problems. But he says he still has a burning desire to live.
"I want to see this country free, and once it's free, then God can take me," he said. "I ask the world to help us."