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[afro-nets] ART crisis in Zimbabwe
- From: Jennifer Mboyane <Jennifer_Mboyane@jsi.com>
- Date: Wed, 09 Nov 2005 13:40:18 -0500
ART crisis in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe policies thwart HIV victims seeking help
By Paul Salopek
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published November 7, 2005
HARARE, Zimbabwe -- When police arrested Monica Nzou for selling
fruit on a slum corner, they taunted her about her AIDS.
Nzou, 34, a shy, painfully thin street peddler and one of
700,000 Zimbabweans uprooted by a government crackdown on infor-
mal settlements, begged to be released. She had two young daugh-
ters to take care of, she told the officers. She was a widow --
her husband had already died of AIDS.
"They laughed and said they were going to charge me with murder
for infecting my husband," she recalled softly. "Then they took
away my shoes. They told me to walk barefoot back to the coun-
tryside. They said, 'Go away and die.'"
That is exactly the fate that confronts not just Nzou, but mil-
lions of other HIV-positive people in Zimbabwe, a once-
prosperous African state sinking ever deeper into mass hunger,
economic ruin and authoritarian rule.
Haunted by one of the world's highest incidence rates of AIDS,
Zimbabwe would face a daunting public health challenge even in
the best of times. More than a quarter of its 12.7 million citi-
zens are infected with the deadly virus, UN statistics show. As
many as 3,000 new cases surface in the country every week.
Yet today, surging inflation, a lack of foreign currency to buy
imported medicines, and President Robert Mugabe's ruthless slum-
clearing campaign all mean that fewer Zimbabweans than ever have
access to crucial anti-retroviral drugs that are prolonging life
elsewhere in AIDS-plagued Africa.
In the last three months, according to a UN report, hyperinfla-
tion has jacked up the cost of a monthly cocktail of generic
AIDS drugs from $7.70 to $17 or more -- a fatal hike in a coun-
try where the average laborer earns the equivalent of $20 a
Just obtaining enough food has become a struggle for untold
thousands of Zimbabweans weakened by AIDS. The nation's farming
output has been slashed by drought and a disastrous land-reform
policy. And in the cities, the poorest AIDS victims have stopped
taking their medicines due to Operation Murambatsvina, or "drive
out the filth," Mugabe's massive urban renewal program.
Over the last four months, bulldozers have leveled entire shan-
tytowns in Zimbabwe. Human-rights groups accuse Mugabe of trying
to drive the restless urban poor back to the countryside, where
his ruling ZANU-PF party maintains a tighter political grip.
Food aid distribution in the cities has been restricted to keep
displaced slum dwellers from returning.
Some humanitarian groups have reacted by slipping HIV-positive
township dwellers clandestine rations of corn.
"We're seeing a flood of new referrals because people can't af-
ford their drugs anymore," said a doctor at a clinic in Harare.
Like many health workers, he asked not to be identified because
of the political sensitivity of the subject.
"They will lie, cheat, do anything to get these drugs," he said.
"I don't blame them. I would too."
One woman who was forcibly relocated outside Harare walked six
hours back to a city clinic to maintain her anti-retroviral drug
regime, he said. Another HIV-positive woman, dumped at a remote
farm, braved police beatings to reach a nearby well. She did
this for her infected baby, who required potable water to drink
with his pills.
"The [slum cleanup] destroyed all these feeding centers for peo-
ple with HIV who were just beginning to learn to take anti-
retroviral drugs," a foreign aid worker said. "They needed that
food to take along with their drugs. Now those people are proba-
bly dying, or are at least in a critical state."
The Zimbabwean Health Ministry still offers subsidized drugs to
a few lucky AIDS patients. But the funding for such programs is
woefully inadequate. A national drug rollout announced last
month, for example, has a budget of less than $2 million -- a
sum that will hardly dent the needs of 200,000 to 400,000 Zim-
babweans with full-blown AIDS.
International AIDS funds also have dried up in Zimbabwe. Mug-
abe's regime distrusts outside humanitarian groups. The average
HIV-positive patient in neighboring Zambia gets $184 in foreign
aid, the UN says. In Zimbabwe, those infected receive $4.
Meanwhile, even the tiny fraction of Zimbabweans who can afford
drugs at pharmacies are finding empty shelves.
Three weeks ago, the nation's main manufacturer of anti-
retrovirals, Varichem Pharmaceuticals, ceased producing anti-
AIDS pills because it lacked U.S. dollars to pay for medical raw
materials from India.
Zimbabwean dollars, which are officially exchanged at about
26,000 to the U.S. dollar, are devaluing so fast under the na-
tion's 350 percent inflation rate that few foreign banks will
Nzou, the wraithlike fruit seller, tries to remain optimistic.
Now barred by the government from hawking bananas and oranges,
she has no hope of obtaining drugs to control her disease.
"Food is my only medicine now," she said at a private feeding
center that was quietly supplying the sick with corn. "When I
eat, I feel stronger. I must remain strong for my girls."
Hefting a small sack of grain, she stepped gingerly out into the
harsh sunlight and set off to a distant plot of land crammed
with other homeless slum families -- a frail woman swallowed in
the folds of her faded dress.
She kept to the back streets, to avoid the police.