When it comes to health care, Peru faces daunting challenges. The infant mortality rate is among the highest in Latin America, as is the mortality rate for women in childbirth. Peru also suffers from relatively high rates of tuberculosis infection, in addition to dengue fever and malaria. Complicating matters is an underfunded health system that does not reach many remote communities in the mountainous, Andean nation.
Juli Lorena Amaya says her ailing infant daughter is lucky to be alive. Unable to secure medical attention in her tiny village in the north of Peru, this 21-year-old mother turned to the Catholic Church for help. A church volunteer brought the entire family to Lima for tests that revealed cysts along the infant's pancreas and kidneys. Juli Amaya's husband, 20-year-old Juan, says he is grateful for the treatment he hopes will save his daughter's life, but notes the following: He says, "There are many people who are not as lucky as we are."
For every heartwarming story of needs being met, there are countless others where suffering goes unabated or where help arrives too late, according to church volunteer Elizabeth Flores, who opened her home to the Amaya family for their stay in Lima.
"Many people already have large tumors or are completely incapacitated, close to death, by the time they get medical care," she says. "We need help so that health centers can treat everyone, especially those in rural areas without financial resources."
Fighting to improve access to health care in Peru is Pedro Francke, national coordinator of an umbrella group of civil organizations known as Foro Salud, or "Health Forum."
He says, "A very serious problem for Peru is that about 25 percent of the population has no access to health care. The biggest reason is economic. Many people have to pay at public hospitals for operations, medicine, etc. And since more than 50 percent of the population is poor, and 20 percent lives in extreme poverty, many people do not have the resources to pay for health care."
Juli Amaya's daughter, whose prognosis is uncertain, is being treated at a state-run health center in Lima that receives funding from Peru's Health Ministry. Services are subsidized but not free, and those lacking health insurance must pay. Chief Physician Jorge Reyes says his staff does the best it can with the funding it receives.
He says, "Undoubtedly, the state cannot absorb all the costs that would be required for health professionals to be able to offer better services. Our operations are minimal. Many times we want to do more for people, but we lack the means. Much of our medical equipment is old or needs maintenance."
Peru recently held first-round presidential elections, with all major candidates promising to improve health care. Some have pledged universal coverage that eliminates inequalities in medical attention due to income or geographic location. Once again, health care advocate Pedro Francke.
"We heard a lot of debate in the elections, with many candidates promising to improve health care," he says. "These promises are to be expected, but I would hope that the next government makes a serious effort to improve access to health care, and dedicates more resources and political energy to that end."
Pedro Francke says health care spending accounts for only about five percent of Peru's gross domestic product, a smaller proportion than many of its neighbors and a fraction of what is spent by industrialized nations. He says more money is needed, but also a better, more efficient use of funds.