Living, hoping, learning

Zimbabwe grapples with crushing AIDS epidemic

February 8, 1996
Web posted at: 11:40 p.m. EST (0440 GMT)

From Reporter Bob Coen

MUREWA, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- The staff at Zimbabwe's hospitals are under siege, battling to cope with one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. More than one third of the country's hospital beds are filled with terminal AIDS cases, and still the numbers climb.

Everyone in Zimbabwe knows someone who has died of AIDS. The dates on the gravestones are reminders of so many lives cut short. "We estimate that 1 million people are affected or infected and probably another 100,000 will die in the next 18 months," says Zimbabwe Health Minister Dr. Timothy Stamps.

healing dance

Despite these frightening statistics, the real story of AIDS is not about dying; it's about living with the disease, against all odds.

In a society that is still not open about AIDS, Noreen Cherewo and Elliot Magunje are rare exceptions. They have had the courage to publicly acknowledge that they are HIV positive and are counseling others on how they too can live with AIDS.

"We are encouraging her to live positively, to eat well, to share her problems," Cherewo says.

But many with HIV are frustrated. They feel that government is not giving them simple information that can help them survive. "They are not doing enough for us. Well, something is being done; a lot of lip service," Magunje says.

AIDS day rally

At ceremonies marking World AIDS Day recently, the main message was one of prevention. Government efforts are concentrating on changing people's sexual habits. "Behavior change is the main and most important thing we have at the moment, given the intensity and rate of progress of the epidemic," Stamps says.

But AIDS activists say that awareness campaigns have failed and that the number of people infected is far greater than official figures. "The prevention message is one of, 'if you don't do this, you will die.' And yet something like 50 to 60 percent of the population is probably infected, and these people are living. And more and more it is becoming apparent that you can live with HIV," activist Lynde Francis says.

Many with the disease are turning to their African roots for answers. Traditional healers, like Sekuru Chimombe, use herbs to treat conditions associated with AIDS.

herbal folk remedies

The healers' patients say that they feel healthier, regaining appetite and lost pounds. Some herbs are undergoing clinical trials, and early results are encouraging, but medical authorities dismiss the healers' work.

"There is not objective scientific evidence of there being a definite improvement which is sustainable," Stamps says.

A cure for AIDS may still be far off, but for those living with the virus, just knowing that they can prolong their lives makes a difference. "It's hope. Hope is keeping me going, because the moment that I discovered hope I found myself on the road again," Magunje says.

"There isn't any patience amongst people living with HIV. We have to find answers and solutions now. I believe that a conservative estimate is of 300 people per week (dying) , and I believe that half those people don't have to die. And the answers are here, right in our reach, and people are not hearing, not listening," Francis says.

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