Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 15, 2008
Million people at risk in Zimbabwe health crisis
Mugabe should be toppled, charged with crimes against humanity – Anglican bishop
BY WCR NEWS SERVICES
Harare, Zimbabwe - More than a million people are facing a severe health risk in Zimbabwe where state hospitals are barely functioning.
A major cholera epidemic is spreading through the country at the same time hospitals are being closed and water and electricity supplied are being disrupted.
"Unless the United Nations and individual governments provide a robust and immediate response, massive loss of life will occur," said the international advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights.
The group also noted that the poverty-stricken country faces "a breakdown in delivery of medications for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and chronic illness, and government obstruction of food and critical aid to millions."
The outbreak of cholera, which is spread through contaminated water or food, is the worst in the country's history.
The World Health Organization said Dec. 9 that the government of Robert Mugabe has likely significantly underestimated the extent of the cholera outbreak. Official figures show that 13,960 people have contracted the disease since August, with 589 deaths.
The WHO estimated that up to 60,000 Zimbabweans could become infected unless the epidemic is swiftly contained.
Meanwhile, the Church of England's archbishop of York has called for Mugabe to be toppled from power.
"The time has come for Robert Mugabe to answer for his crimes against humanity, against his countrymen and women and for justice to be done," said Archbishop John Sentamu, writing in The Observer.
Doctors Without Borders, which has set up cholera treatment centres in Harare, warned Nov. 18 that up to 1.4 million people are in danger if the disease continues to spread.
A Jesuit priest working in the country told of the effects on ordinary citizens.
Jesuit Father Oscar Wermter said most patients in a treatment centre he visited are from areas in Harare that have been without water for more than three months.
"People have been digging wells for water, which has become mixed with sewage," he said in a telephone interview.
Physicians for Human Rights said daily death tolls from cholera "are on the rise" and "fresh water is no longer pumped into urban areas, which will only exacerbate the spread of this infectious disease caused by contaminated water."
The organization accused the Zimbabwean government of "continued gross negligence . . . and callous disregard for the safety and well-being of its citizens."
Physicians for Human Rights called on the world's governments to "act with the utmost urgency to assure that a responsive, legitimate government is in place that can protect the lives and health of the people of Zimbabwe."
Public health workers in Harare report that, due to lack of medicine, equipment, services and staff, public hospitals and clinics "are essentially closed, resulting in preventable deaths," the statement said.
"There is no access to care for those who cannot afford private clinics."
Father Wermter said his parish "is trying to raise money for people to be treated in private hospitals," including Catholic hospitals, which are still operating but where treatment is expensive.
These hospitals "have no option but to charge high rates for treatment because they need to be able to provide medicines and pay their staff," Wermter said.
In the public health sector, he noted, "nurses' salaries don't even cover their bus fare to get to work."
The WHO said it is considering introducing financial incentives to encourage health workers to return to their jobs.
The economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, which has the world's highest inflation rate, has led to chronic shortages of food and gasoline and daily outages of power and water.
No safe drinking water
Unicef, the UN's children's fund, said 80 per cent of the country has no access to safe drinking water.
Among the "tragedies caused by the lack of medicines" in the country is that HIV-positive Zimbabweans "have had to disrupt their antiretroviral treatment," a disruption "which is often fatal," Wermter said.
Hundreds of patients have fled across the border into South Africa in search of treatment.
Zimbabwe has declared the outbreak a national emergency and made a rare request for outside assistance.
The government's inability to deal with the health crisis has prompted renewed calls by western leaders for an end to Mugabe's rule.
"It is time for Robert Mugabe to go," U.S. President George Bush said Dec. 9.
Hopes of an end to the country's political crisis were raised when Mugabe, who has ruled for 28 years, signed a power-sharing agreement with the opposition in September. But little progress has been made in setting up a unity government.
"Diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions against the Mugabe regime have thus far failed to curtail widespread and systematic human rights violations, including willful denial of health care and obstruction of humanitarian aid as well as mass killing, forced displacement, torture and arbitrary arrest," the Physicians for Human Rights statement said.
Zimbabwe's government "has acted with impunity and must be held to account," it said.
Aid agencies say that more than five million Zimbabweans face starvation and that two-thirds of the country's children are not attending school.
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