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Exodus of Professionals Worsens Health Care in Zimbabwe - 2003-10-21

The health delivery system in Zimbabwe is declining as medical personnel leave the country in search of better working conditions and more money. The exodus of nurses and doctors and other professionals from Zimbabwe for economic reasons is accelerating, with most of those leaving going to Britain, the country's former colonial master.

An increasing number of Zimbabweans are desperate to escape their country's harsh economic conditions, and London is a favorite destination.

A senior doctor who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity said junior nurses and doctors in the state medical system see no future in Zimbabwe because their salaries are so low. The doctor said that in Zimbabwe, they cannot afford a car or even think of getting married.

The doctor, who works at one of the country's biggest hospitals, says deliveries of essential drugs and supplies are erratic. She told VOA, "We end up doing half, or none, of the operations we would do under normal circumstances."

In an effort to stem the exodus of medical practitioners, the government introduced a bonding system a few-years ago. Under that arrangement, doctors and nurses undertake to work for the government for a certain period after finishing their training.

But, the doctor said, doctors and nurses simply buy themselves out of the contracts and leave anyway.

The Zimbabwe government has resorted to luring retired nurses back into service and recruiting doctors and other health personnel from Cuba and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But these measures have fallen short of addressing the situation.

The president of the Zimbabwe Medical Association, Dr. Billy Rigava, blamed the healthcare crisis on the exodus of medical practitioners and a lack of drugs and medical supplies, which the country cannot buy because of its shortage of foreign currency.

Dr. Rigava told the South African Sunday Times that if it were not for the private hospitals, the country would be facing what he described as a catastrophe. The majority of Zimbabweans cannot afford private medical care. The AIDS pandemic has further strained the nation's limited resources. Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, and figures show that about 2,000 people die of AIDS-related illnesses every week.

In the early years of independence, President Robert Mugabe was widely praised for ensuring that primary health care was available to all. Now, after 23 years of his rule, it has joined the long list of failing or failed services in Zimbabwe.

Mr. Mugabe blames external forces for the decay, including the former colonial power, Britain, which he accuses of stealing medical personnel from Zimbabwe.