September 2, 2010
A quiet migration of HIV-positive children in need of antiretroviral treatment is underway in Zimbabwe. A growing number of families in rural areas are taking their children into Botswana and South Africa in hope of accessing free ARV therapy.
According to some faith-based organizations, the migration is due to long waiting lists for ARVs in Zimbabwe. Though the government offers free treatment, a rigorous vetting process has led to a backlog of patients needing therapy. Of the roughly 160,000 Zimbabwean children with HIV, just one in 16 have access to lifesaving medicines, a UN report found.
Zimbabwean nationals working in South African and Botswana avoid seeking HIV/AIDS treatment because they have no legal status and fear deportation. Under their Millennium Development Goal commitments, however, both nations attempt to provide free health care for all children.
"Some families, after hearing that others have sent their children across the border, have approached us to assist them with going there as well," said Khumbulani Khaphela, pastor of an evangelical church in rural Plumtree. "This is how desperate the people are to provide treatment for their children."
"From what we are hearing, it is easy for children with tuberculosis and HIV to be treated in South Africa's government hospitals," said Plumtree village elder Josphat Dakamela. "Everybody knows there are no medicines in the country [Zimbabwe] so what is happening here is no surprise."
The cross-border transporters who have long assisted workers moving to South Africa are now helping sick kids make the passage. "Taking children as young as six to South Africa for treatment is something new," said Mongameli Sibanda, a transporter. Some are in obviously poor health, he said, giving the journey a new urgency.