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Koinange: Hospital scene like 'hell on earth'

African nation of Malawi battered by AIDS, drought

By Jeff Koinange
CNN

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news.

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Jeff Koinange, CNN Africa correspondent, in Malawi.

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Behind the Scenes
Malawi
AIDS (Disease)
Drought

BLANTYRE, Malawi (CNN) -- Walking into the highly restricted tuberculosis ward of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Malawi's second city of Blantyre is a lesson in humility.

To enter, you need to fill out a lot of paperwork letting the hospital know that if anything happens to you, it is not liable. This takes a couple of hours.

Once you're cleared, you get a surgeon's mask and a guide and off you go.

Our team did this recently and entered a scene that's the closest thing we've seen to hell on earth.

In bed after bed, the dead and the dying lie side-by-side. Patients stricken by advanced tuberculosis brought on by AIDS cough uncontrollably while relatives try to comfort them.

The faces of the sick are thin, their eyes set deeply in their sockets. Their bones protrude to make them appear deformed. Many are too ill to talk. We are at a loss for words.

This is present-day Malawi, a landlocked central African nation nestled between Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. The toll taken by TB is just one part of Malawi's multi-dimensional crisis.

This is one of the world's 10 poorest countries; life expectancy is a mere 37 years; two-thirds of the population live on less than a dollar a day; one in six adults is HIV positive, and nearly half the population of 12 million faces starvation in coming months if help doesn't arrive soon.

That's 5 million people, which is half the population of London or New York City.

Malawi is in deep trouble after a fourth straight season of failed rains, which made farmlands and fields bone dry. November was supposed to usher in the rainy season -- but the skies were a clear blue and no clouds are in sight.

The majority of Malawians are subsistence farmers - and they are crying out for help. In the south, once the agricultural heartland, people line up for hours under a scorching sun at food distribution centers run by international nongovernmental organizations. But here, too, rations are fast running out.

Supplies meant to last for four weeks now last half that time because of the growing number of people who need food. Aid workers show us empty warehouses, the result of what they say are empty promises by a donor community fatigued by cries for help from Africa.

They tell us this has been a particularly tough year -- the tsunami, earthquakes, drought, hunger, famine -- one pestilence after another, almost biblical, it seems. At the children's ward of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre, the beds are filled with the severely malnourished, half of whom are also HIV-positive.

Doctors tell us the hospital is usually the last resort for many desperate mothers. In a country steeped in myth and superstition, mothers would rather take their children to "local" doctors, a way of saying "witch doctors." When this fails, it's a desperate rush to the Queen Elizabeth, but in most cases that's much too late.

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