Health Groups: Unknown Thousands Dying in Zimbabwe

Michelle Faul, AP, December 8, 2008

Thousands of Zimbabweans are dying, uncounted and out of sight in a silent emergency as hospitals shut, clinics run out of drugs and most cannot afford private medical care, health groups say.

Even as deaths from a cholera epidemic climbed into the hundreds, international and local organizations say many more are dying needlessly in a disaster critics blame on President Robert Mugabe’s government.

The toll will never be known, according to Itai Rusike, executive director of the Community Working Group on Health—a civil society network grouping 35 national organizations.

“Zimbabwe used to have one of the best surveillance systems in the region,” Rusike said in a telephone interview. “But phones are not working, nurses are not there, so their information system has collapsed. . . . It is very difficult to tell how many people have died.”

“These are symptoms of a failed state,” he said in a telephone interview. “Nothing is working.”

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Once a major food exporter, Zimbabwe has been crippled by shortages of necessities including food and medicine as Mugabe, the leader since independence in 1980, clings to power.

As businesses collapse, unemployment has risen to 80 percent with the majority of the population depending on handouts from a growing diaspora; more than a third of a population has fled, many to South Africa and former colonizer Britain, but some as far as New Zealand.

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To the cholera deaths, the report said, it was necessary to add people with diabetes who run out of insulin, appendicitis cases, asthma attacks, bleeding ulcers and septicemia—”all treatable conditions from which thousands of deaths are now occurring.”

Save the Children, a British charity, said hundreds, if not thousands of pregnant women and their children “stand a very high risk of death.”

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Both Rusike, of the community health group, and Women of Zimbabwe Arise said the cholera epidemic could be linked directly to the government’s failures. The disease is caused by contaminated water and food, in Zimbabwe’s case the collapse of water and sewage services.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. would continue to press the international community to take action on Zimbabwe but also stressed the importance of pressure from the country’s African neighbors.

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Rusike warned in June 2007 that Zimbabwe was in danger of suffering epidemics of cholera and malaria when he called for Parirenyatwa to intervene as water supplies became more erratic.

Mugabe’s government took control of water supplies from city and town councils when the councils were taken over by opposition politicians in elections three years ago.

Rusike said the government officials fired water engineers and other staff and replaced them with “friends and relatives with no qualifications in water management.”

Last week, water authorities cut all supplies in Harare, the sprawling capital of about 2 million people and the epicenter of the cholera epidemic, saying they had no purifying chemicals and feared piping contaminated water would help spread the disease.

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