Voice of America (Washington, DC)

29 August 2014

Zimbabwe: Infant, Maternal Mortality Rates Drop

Harare — The United Nations is reporting huge improvements in Zimbabwe's prenatal, newborn and maternal health care over the past five years.

However, the U.N. Children's Fund says the survey indicates that Zimbabwe must continue working to improve health standards.

According to research findings released Friday, Zimbabwe's infant and maternal mortality rates have declined by 20 and 36 percent, respectively, since 2009.

The number of pregnant women who received prenatal care increased from 57 to 70 percent, while mothers accessing care after giving birth had soared from 27 to 78 percent.

The UNICEF research was funded by the European Union and the government of Zimbabwe.

Much of Zimbabwe's progress is due to assistance from a multinational fund dedicated to improving health care for mothers, newsborns and young children.

Despite these encouraging results, UNICEF's chief representative in Zimbabwe, Reza Hossaini, says it is still too early to say all is well with early child care in the southern African country.

"Let us keep in mind that, yes, we have won battles here and there," said Hossaini. "We have bent the [trends of] maternal mortality, but we have really not won the war as yet. These gains cannot be sustained and further progress cannot be made if we lose our focus from those strategic choices that we have made, now that we know they have delivered positive results."

Two of those strategic choices were investing in the health sector's human resources and making sure that the country maintains adequate supplies of necessary drugs.

Failure on those fronts was the major undoing of Zimbabwe's health sector over the past two decades.

It was only after organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the European Union poured in money that the situation changed.

Optimism

Itai Rusike, who heads the Community Working Group on Health, an organization fighting for all Zimbabweans to enjoy health care, expressed optimism about the UNICEF report.

"Generally it is a good report," said Rusike. "It gives us hope in the sense that the indicators are kind of improving. But this report has to be linked up to what is happening on the ground."

But he added there a dire need for better water and sanitation in most parts of Zimbabwe persists. More than 30 percent of Zimbabweans still do not have access to safe drinking water, the research showed, and Rusike said the real number is likely higher than that, since most water taps in urban areas are dry.

Dr. Gerald Gwinji, permanent secretary at Zimbabwe's Ministry of Health, is more upbea, calling the new health report one that gives the country a sense of direction.

"We now have to work on issues of quality and equity," he said. "These survey results are going to be one of our pillars of our next health strategy, and the next step is to do a bottleneck analysis [of the] ministry of health and child care. This will help to determine where to focus to help further improve on our health indicators."

Gwinji said Zimbabwe's maternal mortality rate - 614 deaths in every 100,000 pregnancies - and infant mortality rate of 75 per 100,000 are still too high. He says further investment can reduce those losses.

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