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Zimbabwe AIDS Program Off to Slow Start - 2004-07-09


Zimbabwe's first HIV case was diagnosed in 1985. Today, the estimated national HIV and AIDS infection rate stands at close to 25 percent, one of the highest in the world. But because of cost constraints it has taken the government until this year to initiate an anti-retroviral program.

AIDS related diseases kill about 3000 Zimbabweans every week. Health experts believe this figure could be much lower if anti-retroviral drugs were made available to HIV carriers.

According to the Head of the HIV and Tuberculosis unit in the Ministry of Health, Dr. Owen Mugurungi, the recently launched anti-retroviral program can only benefit up to 10,000 HIV patients. Dr. Mugurungi says while the local manufacture of generic drugs has brought prices down considerably, it costs the government much more to dispense the drugs.

"What we often forget are the other hidden costs, the costs of testing a patient to find whether they are HIV positive or not, doing the basic laboratory tests to make sure that this patient does not have anemia which would make it impossible for them to take these drugs, the test to make sure that their liver, their kidneys are functioning well. The hidden costs per patient are nearly the same as the cost of the drug," Dr. Mugurungi said.

Anti-retroviral drugs are available free of charge to those who cannot pay. It costs about $10 a month for those who can pay.

Dr. Mugurungi said in a bid to further reduce the cost of the drugs, his ministry is trying to have import duties on raw materials used in the manufacture of anti-retrovirals lifted. He also said the roll out of the program will be affected by the low tech of some of the country's hospitals and inexperienced medical staff.

Zimbabwe's health system, considered one of Africa's best during the early years of independence, has been hit hard by years of economic hardship and a shortage of foreign currency to import essential machinery and drugs. It has also suffered from the brain drain the country is experiencing as doctors and nurses leave for better jobs abroad.

President Robert Mugabe recently acknowledged that cost is a big problem. Addressing the country's first national AIDS conference last month, he said because the majority of Zimbabweans still rely on traditional medicine, it should compliment modern medicine in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

The president of the Zimbabwe Traditional Healer's Association, Professor Gordon Chavunduka, said his organization welcomes the president's statement and is eager to cooperate with the health ministry. He said, just like modern medicine, some traditional healers can cure the symptoms of AIDS.

But so far, he said, there has been no response from the ministry.

"Traditional healers are waiting for the minister now to come and say, 'Let us co-operate in this particular area'. They have not done that yet," professor Chavunduka explained.

Given the constraints facing the ARV roll-out, some advocates of those who are HIV positive believe that a healthy diet can make a difference for the infected. One of these advocates is Lynde Francis, who has known that she is HIV positive since 1986. She runs The Center, an HIV and AIDS counseling organization, and believes that eating traditional foods can boost the immune system and delay the onset of AIDS.

"I think that if people were nutritionally adequate, if they were taught how to eat a healthy diet and live a healthy lifestyle, they may have HIV or they may not, but they will not need to progress to AIDS,? Ms. Francis said. ?I have been 18 years HIV positive and that is what I have done and I am still healthy. I have hundreds and hundreds, thousands actually of patients and clients who have been doing that and who are still well and health and don't need ARVs."

She blames modern processed foods for a range of diseases affecting people today, and advises her clients not to eat anything that their great-grandmother did not eat.

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