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Fall in HIV Infection Under Scrutiny

Zimbabwean health workers sceptical of official figures showing decreasing prevalence.
By IWPR Srdan
A South African weekly screamed recently, “At last, good news from Zimbabwe!” The headline was for a story on a substantial drop in the rate of HIV infection throughout the country.

On October 31, the authorities announced that the number of people living with the virus had fallen from one in four of the adult population to one in seven over the past four years.

It seemed that at last there was something the authorities were doing right at a time when President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF is accused of destroying a once vibrant economy and running down the health sector.

According to a United Nations statement, the Zimbabwe ministry of health and child welfare, assisted by a group of international experts, based the figures on HIV infection in pregnant women attending antenatal clinics. Major agencies, including the World Health Organisation, WHO, and the UN children’s agency UNICEF, were involved in the study.

But frontline health workers have told IWPR that they’ve seen little evidence of a downturn in levels of infection, with a number suggesting that if anything the situation is becoming worse.

In rural Matopo, which lies outside Zimbabwe's second largest city of Bulawayo, and in areas surrounding Matabeleland South, they say they’ve actually recorded a rise in the number of young men and women in their 20s succumbing to HIV-related illnesses.

“It is difficult for many people to understand how the [official] decline is calculated,” a health worker, attached to a Catholic non-governmental organisation, told IWPR. The Catholic Church runs clinics and health centres in two Matabeleland provinces and monitors HIV infection trends across the country.

“In Matopo, we now have elders postponing funerals because they say [burying people] has become the only thing they do throughout the week, and they need to rest,” he said.

“A lot of young people are dying in these areas. You just have to be there to see the impact this disease has had on rural communities.”

Meanwhile, Bulawayo city council says it is running out of graves, owing to the high incidence of AIDS-related deaths.

Government officials accuse the Movement for Democratic Change-dominated council of working hard to discredit the Mugabe presidency by presenting a picture that the government is losing the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Local health workers who have analysed the latest report documenting the fall in HIV infection suggest it might be explained by the continued emigration of millions of Zimbabweans to neighbouring countries, which has made it difficult to adequately monitor infection trends.

They also point out that deaths from HIV infection are growing because of the soaring cost of anti-retroviral drugs.

At a communicable diseases centre run by the Bulawayo city council and funded by USAID, officials say out of around 180,000 people in need of anti-retroviral therapy in the city, only 70,000 are on the programme.

“It’s really terrible,” a doctor working here told IWPR.

In communities where living with HIV and AIDS were previously well-kept family secrets, increasing numbers of people are coming out about their condition.

They do so in the hope that somebody knows somebody who may be able procure drugs for free, and allow them to jump the queue of those waiting for places on treatment programmes.

The doctor welcomed this new openness, saying that it would help to get a more accurate picture of infection rates.

“What is encouraging is that there seems to be an interest now among patients to come out into the open about one’s condition - unlike in the past, when many remained closet patients and died without being documented.”

Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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