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Zimbabwe Health Crisis a Regional Problem

Hope was in the air yesterday when my colleague Primrose Matambanadzo, Programmes Coordinator for Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights saw President Carter in Atlanta. Three weeks ago, a group including former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and President Carter had to cancel a humanitarian assessment visit to Zimbabwe when the Mugabe government refused them visas, making travel to the country impossible.

Last week, Carter called Zimbabwe "a basket case" and blamed the cholera outbreak and other turmoil in the nation on "the poisonous effects" of the Mugabe regime. The leadership in Harare don't want to admit there is a crisis," Carter said.

In only the last three weeks, a complete collapse of the health system and sanitation infrastructure has given way to a major cholera epidemic spreading throughout the country, and a breakdown in delivery of medications for HIV-AIDS, TB, malaria and chronic illness. Essential medicines are unavailable to treat the very diseases that the government's gross negligence has exacerbated. Anti-retroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS patients and TB treatment for chronically ill patients has been severely disrupted.

Carter, in a statement has said the nation's four major hospitals have shut down. The lack of medicine, equipment, services, and staff, public hospitals and clinics are resulting in preventable deaths. There is no access to care for those who cannot afford private clinics. The only maternity hospital in the capital is also closed and pregnant women and newborns are not receiving necessary health care.

The deteriorating water and sanitation system has led to a cholera epidemic spreading throughout the country and daily death tolls are on the rise. The World Health Organization reports that 11,700 people in Zimbabwe have contracted the curable disease and 473 people have died from it since August -- but Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights have said the numbers are being underreported.

There was no running water Monday in Zimbabwean capital Harare. Fresh water is no longer pumped into urban areas, which will only exacerbate the spread of cholera caused by contaminated water. In some parts of town there is raw sewage running down streets, but residents in the capital are digging shallow holes in their yards in hopes of finding water.

The economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe is not just exporting refugees to its neighbors, but also disease. Right now, CNN is reporting Zimbabwe's cholera crisis has now become a regional problem.

The government's obstructionism is speeding up the massive loss of life. Police in Harare have broken up a protest march by doctors and nurses angered at the worsening cholera outbreak. Witnesses say officers used batons to disperse and beat up the crowd of health workers.

This is the second time in a month a health protest has been broken up. Health workers from Harare Central and Parirenyatwa Hospitals took the courageous step of publicly protesting against the state of the public health system two weeks ago. They gathered in the street, calling for an urgent response to the situation. However, riot police forcefully dispersed the hundreds of doctors, nurses and other health workers who had assembled to protest poor salaries and working conditions. "Undeterred by such threats, we continued marching but we were thoroughly beaten by the members of the police force which effectively ended the demonstration, but we believe our voices were heard!" said one Information Officer for the Zimbabwe Health Students' Network.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), in a press release issued on November 19 stated, "Given the continued gross negligence of the government of Zimbabwe and the callous disregard for the safety and wellbeing of its citizens, together with the dire signs of impending lethal epidemic disease, the Zimbabwe government must admit its failure to manage the national health system and seek assistance from the international community." The organization is calling on governments of the world to act with the utmost urgency. PHR is circulating a petition to urge Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to take decisive action immediately.

Diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions against the Mugabe regime have thus far failed to curtail widespread and systematic human rights violations including willful denial of health care and obstruction of humanitarian aid as well as mass killing, forced displacement, torture and arbitrary arrest. The current government has acted with impunity and must be held to account. "We have been left uncertain of our future which we have sweated for all these years and hopes of emancipating ourselves have been shattered," stated the Information Officer for Zimbabwe Health Students' Network.