It might have become an international joke when Venezuela briefly ran out of toilet paper supplies a year ago, but a public health crisis is gripping the troubled nation – and it’s no laughing matter.

The country is running short on supplies of antiretroviral medicines to treat the HIV-AIDS virus, affecting about 50,000 Venezuelans taking the medicine that prevents the HIV virus from turning into full blown AIDS. Non-profit groups in Venezuela claim that thousands of patients are now living without the medication.

"I go to the state hospital once or twice a week to see if my pills have arrived,'' schoolteacher Jose Ramos, 38, told USA Today. “They always tell me to come back later."

The lack of antiretroviral medicines has become a highly criticized failure of the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro, who has touted the free and comprehensive healthcare plans started by former leader Hugo Chávez.

Despite the Venezuelan government championing the health care plan, it has failed at times to be either free or comprehensive, with patients complaining about short supplies of medicines for people with cancer and diabetes and long delays at hospitals due to a lack of anesthesia and other medicines. Patients have also had to pay inflated prices for such hospitals staples like gauze, gloves and drugs for their doctors to use in operations when hospital supplies run dry.

Making up for the shortages in country, HIV/AIDS patients have had to get their supplies from NGO’s from abroad – chiefly from the United States. The donations, however, are not enough to meet the demand.

"It's not easy to find donations abroad now,’’ say Feliciano Reyna, who heads the NGO Accion Solidaria. “Our situation is really critical."

Besides the medical supply shortages, Venezuelans have had to deal with a lack of such vital items such as flour, cooking oil and toilet paper, and one of the highest murder rates in the world.

These shortages, along with popular discontent with the Maduro government, has led to widespread protests across the country and clashes between  demonstrators and security forces that at times have turned violent.

Since Feb. 12, Venezuela has been experiencing a series of anti-government protests, which on occasion have become violent and so far have left more than 40 people dead and hundreds arrested.

The dead include both opponents and supporters of the government, as well as police and bystanders.

Among the hundreds of people in custody are members of the security forces accused in connection with two of the deaths.

Efe contributed to this report. 

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