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Decline in Zimbabwe's Health System Could Spur Increase in HIV/AIDS Cases, MSF Report Says

February 19, 2009

Zimbabwe could face several public health crises, including an increase in HIV/AIDS cases, as a result of a recent cholera epidemic and the country's deteriorating health system, Medecins Sans Frontieres said Tuesday in a report, the AP/Los Angeles Times reports. According to MSF, one in five people in Zimbabwe are HIV-positive, and the number of cases likely will increase because people are unable to access medications or health advice. The organization urged Zimbabwe's government and international donors to increase efforts to address public health in the country, adding that obstacles such as high government fees pose challenges for humanitarian aid agencies attempting to respond to the situation (Bryson, AP/Los Angeles Times, 2/17).

According to the report, more than 500,000 people in Zimbabwe require urgent medical treatment. In addition, life expectancy in the country has declined to 34 years as a result of Zimbabwe's weakened health system, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS. More than 40,000 people in the country currently receive antiretroviral treatment, and MSF provides care for about 75% of suspected cholera cases (RIA Novosti, 2/18). According to the AP/Times, the deterioration in Zimbabwe's health system has affected numerous medical services, including treatment to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission and prenatal care for pregnant women. Christophe Fournier, international president of MSF, said that Zimbabwe's recent cholera epidemic is "only the most visible manifestation of a much broader crisis in the whole country," adding that the entire public health system has "collapsed." Fournier said that during his 20 years of experience working in medical emergencies, only in Zimbabwe has he "seen this kind of collapse ... in the absence of any conflict, any war" (AP/Los Angeles Times, 2/17). Manuel Lopez, head of MSF in Zimbabwe, said "There has been a devastating implosion of Zimbabwe's once-lauded health system, which doesn't just affect cholera patients." In a statement accompanying the report, Lopez added that the country faces "a massive medical emergency, spiraling out of control."

In the report, MSF asserts that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's government has imposed stringent restrictions that have hampered the ability of aid organizations to provide medical assessments and services. "Especially in cases of emergencies where quick action often determines life or death, allowances for a rapid humanitarian response is crucial," the report said (Sulelo, Reuters, 2/17). Lopez said immigration authorities can take six months to respond to requests to bring in health specialists, adding that visas and work permits cost "an incredible amount." In addition, aid groups often face difficulty importing medicines into the country. "The situation has become very critical," Lopez said, adding, "We cannot continue with this nonsense." Although Lopez expressed concern that international donors would hesitate to contribute funds to a government led by Mugabe, Fournier said that addressing the public health situation in Zimbabwe will require an immediate "major emergency infusion (of foreign aid)" (AP/Los Angeles Times, 2/17). According to Reuters, some Zimbabweans are hopeful that the recent formation of a coalition government between Mugabe's party and an opposition party will help the country recover from the recent crises (Reuters, 2/17).

Online The MSF report is available online (.pdf).

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