Health care workers protest over the lack of medicine and low salaries last month in Caracas.

Story highlights

Venezuelans struggle with lack of food, medical shortages

President Nicolas Maduro doesn't say what aid he's seeking from UN

CNN  — 

President Nicolas Maduro said he has asked the United Nations for help in dealing with Venezuela’s medicine shortages, which have grown severe as the country grapples with a crippling economic crisis.

“The United Nations has the most advanced and complete plans in the world to recover the pharmaceutical industry’s production capacity and direct it toward medicines for the people,” Maduro said Friday on state-run television.

Maduro did not elaborate on what kind of aid he was seeking, or whether the United Nations had agreed to help. The Venezuelan leader met Friday with Jessica Faieta, assistant administrator and director for the UN Development Program in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to state media.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro faces protests over shortages.

Maduro said he had asked for support to address a host of other shortages and issues his country was facing due to “the economic war and the fall in oil prices.”

In the last few years, Venezuelans have struggled with food and medicine shortages as well as lack of basic products such as toilet paper.

Inflation in Venezuela rose to nearly 500% in 2016 and is expected to rise to a whopping 1,660% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Protests over medicine shortages

This week’s request is not the first time Venezuela has reached out to the United Nations. In December, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez met with UN representatives to address and extend cooperation for affordable prices in food and medicine in Venezuela.

But the situation continues to worsen.

Venezuelan food crisis reflected in skipped meals and weight loss

The country is lacking roughly 80% of the basic medical supplies, according to the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela.

Hundreds of health care workers and other Venezuelans staged protests this month demanding better access to medicine and health treatment. Many of the protesters brought prescriptions for medicines that they said they can’t buy at local pharmacies.

Last year, the opposition-led National Assembly in Venezuela declared a “humanitarian crisis” in the health care system.

CNN visited a hospital in Caracas and found that health care workers believed medicine was being swiped to be sold on the black market. Government rationing of medications has made even basics, such as pain relievers, hard to come by.

For years, Venezuelans have had to hunt for penicillin and other remedies at pharmacies, often without success. Public hospitals are in no better shape, with people dying due to the scarcity of basic medical care.

The ‘Maduro Diet’

Maduro made Friday’s announcement during a daytime TV show on state-run network Venezolana de Television, or VTV. He often hosts his shows from supermarkets, food manufacturing plants or on the streets, reassuring the public his government is doing everything it can to put food on people’s tables and to stabilize the economy. Friday’s show was from inside a bakery, where Maduro spoke about providing bread to the people.

Bread lines are a common sight across much of the capital, and Maduro’s government has vowed to take over any bakeries in Caracas that don’t use 90% of their flour to produce canilla, a type of French bread.

New data from an annual national survey by three of Venezuela’s major universities and other research groups has found that more Venezuelans are skipping meals and the percentage of malnourished is growing. Many have dubbed this phenomenon the “Maduro Diet, ” and Maduro, for his part says doing without “makes you tough.”

The number of survey respondents who reported eating two or fewer meals per day nearly tripled from the previous year’s survey, rising to 32.5% in 2016 from 11.3% in 2015. The authors of the study estimate that some 9.6 million Venezuelans eat two or fewer daily meals. A majority of respondents said they lost weight in the past year, dropping an average of 19 pounds (8.7 kilograms).

At the National Assembly, lawmaker Carlos Paparoni said the food shortages have led to the deaths of 27 children from hunger and caused many others to suffer from malnutrition.

Headed into its fourth year, Venezuela’s recession doesn’t show any signs of slowing.

Venezuela can’t pay to import goods – such as food or medicine – because the government is strapped for cash after years of mismanagement, heavy spending on poorly run government programs, corruption and lack of investment on its oil fields.

The relatively low price of oil is another problem. Venezuela has more oil reserves than any other nation in the world, and oil shipments make up more than 90% of the country’s total exports.

CNN’s Julia Jones, Patrick Gillespie, Mariano Castillo, Flora Charner and Paula Newton contributed to this report.