May 12, 2017 / 2:47 PM / 3 months ago

Venezuela replaces health minister after data shows crisis worsening

FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a costume with medicine boxes that reads "Health crisis" shouts slogans during a rally of workers of the health sector due to the shortages of basic medical supplies and against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela February 7, 2017.Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro has abruptly dismissed Venezuela's health minister days after the government broke a nearly two-year silence on data that showed the country's medical crisis significantly worsening.

Gynecologist Antonieta Caporale, who held the post for just over four months, was replaced by pharmacist Luis Lopez, the government said.

Ministry data published this week showed cases of infant mortality rose 30 percent and maternal mortality 65 percent, while malaria shot up 76 percent last year. There was also a jump in illnesses such as diphtheria and Zika.

In the fourth year of a brutal recession, Venezuela is suffering widespread shortages of medicines and basic medical equipment. A leading pharmaceutical association has said the country is running short on roughly 85 percent of medicines.

Millions are also struggling with food shortages and soaring inflation, fuelling protests against Maduro.

In announcing the cabinet change late on Thursday night, Vice President Tareck El Aissami did not provide reasons for the minister's ouster.

"President Nicolas Maduro is grateful to Doctor Antonieta Caporale for her work," he wrote on Twitter.

"CRITICAL STEP"

The Health Ministry had stopped releasing figures after July 2015, amid a wider data blackout.

The data release was therefore significant, and welcomed by government critics.

"The publication of the data by the Ministry of Health is a crucial step in addressing health challenges in Venezuela," read a statement from UNICEF, which had previously avoided criticizing the government.

"(It) provides stark evidence of the impact of the prolonged crisis on women and children in the country."

Venezuela defines infant mortality as the death of children up to the age of 1 year and maternal mortality as death while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of a pregnancy.

The Venezuelan government provides only the number of cases and percentage changes, rather than rates per thousand people, as most countries do, making useful comparisons with other time periods and countries impossible.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Dan Grebler

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