Southern Africa: Uncontrolled Asthma Silently Grips Zimbabwe, Urgent Action Needed

27 February 2024

Rumbidzayi Zinyuke — Zimbabwe is facing another silent, but significant public health threat: uncontrolled asthma.

Asthma is a major non-communicable disease (NCD), affecting both children and adults, although it is the most common chronic disease among children.

According to the World Health Organisation, asthma affected an estimated 262 million people in 2019 and caused 455 000 deaths.

The disease ranks among the top 20 causes of death in Zimbabwe, claiming an estimated 0,89 percent of lives.

This statistic is alarming, especially considering that asthma deaths are largely preventable with proper management.

This chronic lung condition, characterised by wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing, is impacting thousands of lives, with worrying implications for mortality rates, healthcare systems, and overall well-being.

The common symptoms of asthma include a persistent cough, especially at night, wheezing when exhaling and sometimes when inhaling, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, sometimes even when resting, chest tightness, making it difficult to breathe deeply.

Some people will have worse symptoms when they have a cold or during changes in the weather. Other triggers can include dust, smoke, fumes, grass and tree pollen, animal fur and feathers, strong soaps and perfume.

While the disease seems common, studies have shown a significant under diagnosis of asthma in Zimbabwe.

Pulmonologist and head of a new respiratory unit at Parirenyatwa Hospital Dr Felix Manyeruke recently highlighted how asthma is affecting many Zimbabweans, most of whom suffer silently.

"The burden of respiratory illness in the country is high and asthma is the most common. In the world Zimbabwe is number 14 in terms of asthma deaths so most of these respiratory deaths occur at home," he said.

This is mostly a result of limited access to healthcare, especially in the rural areas, coupled with a lack of awareness and resources, which has left many individuals undiagnosed and struggling with debilitating symptoms.

Even for those fortunate enough to receive a diagnosis, access to essential medication often proves challenging due to high costs and supply chain constraints.

While the mortality rates remain high, the impact of asthma extends far beyond this.

Uncontrolled asthma can severely limit individuals' quality of life, leading to lost work and school days, reduced productivity, and increased healthcare expenditure.

Children with uncontrolled asthma often miss school and this impacts on their education and overall development.

Access to healthcare and medication is also a major issue for many asthma sufferers in the country.

The high cost of asthma medications can be prohibitive for those living in poverty, and healthcare facilities in rural areas may not always have the necessary resources to effectively manage the condition.

Furthermore, environmental factors such as air pollution and exposure to smoke from cooking fires can exacerbate asthma symptoms and make it more difficult for those with the condition to manage their health.

Health experts emphasise the urgent need for a multi-pronged approach to tackle this challenge.

They say improving access to affordable diagnostic tools and essential asthma medications is crucial.

Overcoming the burden of asthma in Zimbabwe requires a collective effort.

This starts from individuals taking charge of their health and seeking proper diagnosis, to healthcare professionals diligently implementing evidence-based practices, and the Government investing in resources and infrastructure.

Through its institutions, the Government is already working towards this.

Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals recently opened a new high dependency unit that offers care for patients with acute respiratory illnesses including asthma.

The unit will definitely go a long way in ensuring that asthma patients get the critical care that they need.

Other organisations that deal with such diseases can also play a crucial role in raising awareness about the condition, providing educational resources, and advocating for improved healthcare access.

For all interventions to work, there should be a national strategy for asthma diagnosis, management, and prevention.

There is also need to strengthen healthcare infrastructure and increase access to essential medications at affordable prices.

Investment in research to understand the unique factors contributing to asthma in Zimbabwe is also vital, while building capacity of healthcare professionals in asthma diagnosis and management will go a long way.

As has been said, if the people are not aware of what could be affecting them, then all could be vain.

Community engagement is crucial to ensure the sustainability of these efforts.

Engaging community leaders, traditional healers, and patients themselves in education and awareness campaigns can foster understanding, encourage early diagnosis, and promote adherence to treatment plans.

By addressing these critical areas, Zimbabwe can take a significant step towards improving the quality of life for people living with asthma, ensuring they can breathe freely and reach their full potential.

Globally, the fight against NCDs is advancing and asthma is included in the WHO Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The global health body is taking action to extend diagnosis of and treatment for asthma in a number of ways.

The WHO Package of Essential Non-communicable Disease Interventions (PEN) was developed to help improve NCD management in primary health care in low-resource settings.

The Global Alliance against Chronic Respiratory Diseases (GARD) also contributes to the work to prevent and control chronic respiratory diseases.

Zimbabwe, as a member state of the WHO, is a signatory to most of these interventions hence the work towards responding to asthma is already underway.

What is needed now is increased awareness and access to proper medical care, to minimise the impact of the condition on people's lives.

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