Zim on the brink of massive medical emergency, MSF

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Harare - The cholera outbreak that has killed more than 3 000 people since last August in Zimbabwe, is the tip of a massive medical emergency that is spiralling out of control on the back of a collapsed public health system, says Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF).

MSF, which has treated almost 45 000 people or about 75 percent of total cholera cases to date, urged Zimbabwe's fledgling unity government to lift barriers on aid workers helping combat cholera and called on the international community to support efforts to stem the epidemic.

The group provides emergency medical assistance to populations in danger across the world said Zimbabwe's once-lauded health system had imploded over the past decade of political and economic turmoil.

The MSF said the collapse of public health was not just affecting cholera patients but all the sick in Zimbabwe, which is also grappling with acute food shortages, hyperinflation and a burgeoning HIV and AIDS epidemic, amid deepening poverty.

"We know that public hospitals are turning people away, health centres are running out of supplies and equipment, there is an acute lack of medical staff, patients can't afford to travel to pick up their HIV medication or to receive treatment and many of our own clinics are overflowing.

"From what we see each day it couldn't be clearer - this is a massive medical emergency, spiralling out of control," said Manuel Lopez, MSF head of mission in Zimbabwe on Tuesday.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic that has infected more than 69 000 people to date is the deadliest outbreak of the disease in Africa in 15 years.

A unity government formed last week by President Robert Mugabe and his long time rival Morgan Tsvangirai is expected to move urgently to tackle cholera and a deepening humanitarian crisis.

However, the unity administration in which Mr Tsvangirai is Prime Minister, had its first day in the office on Monday overshadowed by the continued imprisonment of a top ally of his, Roy Bennett.

Mr Bennett, who is treasurer of the Movement for Democratic Change and its choice of deputy agriculture minister in the unity government, was arrested as Mr Mugabe swore in the new unity Cabinet on Friday.

The state accuses him of attempting to commit terrorism, banditry and sabotage.

MSF International President Christophe Fournier urged the international community to provide humanitarian support to Zimbabwe saying the lives of children and other vulnerable groups could not be held ransom to politics.

Mr Fournier said: "Governments and international agencies must recognise the severity of this crisis and ensure that the provision of humanitarian aid remains distinct from political processes.

"Their policies towards Zimbabwe must not come at the expense of the humanitarian imperative to ensure that malnourished children, victims of violence and people with HIV and AIDS or other illnesses have unhindered access to the assistance they need to survive."