31 January 2007

Zimbabwe: Ongoing Medical Strike Could Cost Lives

Harare — As Zimbabwe's disgruntled doctors and nurses continue their strike over low salaries and poor working conditions, concern is growing about how the prolonged stayaway is affecting HIV-positive patients.

The strike by health professionals, now more than a month old, has left dozens of desperate patients without medical care in rural and urban areas. Doctors, who earn less than US$240 a month, opened the gate to what has become a growing torrent of wage protests by demanding an 8,000 percent increase to cushion themselves against inflation, and high transport and food costs.

AIDS service organisations are worried that HIV-positive people living in a country with one of the world's highest prevalence rates could be in real danger.

"It is possible that some of our members have already died as a result of the strike. I urge the government to solve this matter urgently, because it's devastating," said Benjamin Mazhindu, national chairman of the Zimbabwe National Network for People Living with HIV (ZNPP+), which has 60,000 members.

Mazhindu warned that if the strike continued, more people living with the virus would develop side effects or become resistant to antiretroviral (ARV) medication, which they were finding difficult to obtain during the industrial action. Any interruption in treatment can lead to the HI-virus becoming resistant to the medication, hastening progress towards AIDS.

Some patients have been forced to wait for more than a week to get ARVs, Mazhindu noted. ZNNP+ member Tabeth Moyo, for instance, had been unable to receive her monthly supply of the life-prolonging treatment from Parirenyatwa Hospital, one of the country's largest health facilities. "I fear that I will become drug resistant because my drugs ran out two weeks ago and I have not been able to replenish them."

The Community Working Group of Health (CWGH), a local nongovernmental organisation dealing with health matters in 25 of the country's districts, has been trying to determine the impact of the strike on HIV-positive Zimbabweans. CWGH executive director Itai Rusike said people were no longer going to hospitals, and were waiting to die. "It's a disaster in the making."

Inevitably, women are bearing the brunt. Mary Sandasi, executive director of the Women and AIDS Support Network (WASN), said pregnant women, most of whom were on ARV treatment, had no access to healthcare workers, which could cause serious complications when giving birth. Many pregnant women have been delivering at home with the help of midwives as a result of the strike.

Few Zimbabweans have turned to private health institutions because the tariffs were unaffordable to ordinary people grappling with an unemployment level above 80 percent and inflation that has reached 1,281 percent, the highest in the world.

Arnold Mungezi, who has been living positively for the past 10 years, is more fortunate, as he can afford to buy his medication from a pharmacy. Nevertheless, he called on the government to address the concerns of doctors and nurses. "They should be given salaries that go hand in hand with their work to avoid this disaster, where people are just dying."


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