Zimbabwe's children struggle to survive

Zimbabwe’s defunct health system and the growing humanitarian crisis have had a devastating impact on children, particularly those who are orphaned or vulnerable, and United Nations officials have warned that child mortality rates will continue to rise.

United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) executive director Ann Veneman, who visited Zimbabwe recently, told journalists that the cholera epidemic, the collapse of the health services system, the closure of government hospitals and the economic and food crises have made it difficult for children to access healthcare and other preventative measures.

According to Unicef, Zimbabwe has a higher number of orphans than any other country in the world. Of a population of 13-million, at least 1,3-million are orphans.

Children living with HIV have had nowhere to turn for treatment of opportunistic infections since health workers at government referral hospitals downed tools in October 2008 in protest over the deteriorating working conditions and poor salaries.

About 120 000 children are in need of antiretroviral drugs, but only nine percent are receiving their medication from the government-run programme. The drugs should be collected every month, but the HIV/Aids clinics have closed, so getting the drugs has become difficult.

Access to the life-prolonging medication can depend on whether the overworked senior staff still working at the hospitals have decided to open the clinics.

“The fact that children have no access to HIV/Aids treatment services because hospitals are closed or Aids clinics are closed is a big issue for us,” Veneman noted.

“What happens when they get pneumonia and they don’t have access to antibiotics? We all know that pneumonia is one the biggest killers of children under five, while children living with HIV are particularly vulnerable to this disease—and other diseases—because of their compromised immune systems,” she added.

According to Unicef, about 41 percent of child deaths are Aids-related; with limited access to healthcare and HIV/Aids treatment services, child mortality rates will keep rising. About 1,7-million people are living with HIV in Zimbabwe, of which about 160 000 are children.

The work boycott led to the closure of at least three referral hospitals in the capital, Harare, leaving patients stranded. To help get health personnel back to work, Veneman announced that Unicef would make available US$5-million for salaries and incentives.

Veneman also expressed concern about the effects of the deteriorating health system on maternal health. The programme to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV has suffered a setback as a result of the health worker boycott.

Women have struggled to be admitted to deliver their babies in state hospitals, and are not being adequately monitored. Most Zimbabweans cannot afford the high cost of obstetric care in private-sector institutions.

Without treatment or other interventions, 15 to 30 percent of babies born to HIV-positive mothers will become infected with HIV during pregnancy and delivery. A further five to 20 percent will become infected through breastfeeding.

Health and Child Welfare Minister Dr David Parirenyatwa told Irin/PlusNews the government was doing the best it could to address the problems in the health sector.

“We are currently working with donors on the ground to address problems in the health sector,” he said. “However, the economic crisis continues to make life very difficult for us, but we are doing our best.” - Irin

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