Zimbabwe AIDS epidemic shows no sign of letting up
March 12, 1999
HARARE, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- Under a blazing African sun, a rural community comes together to mourn another life lost to AIDS. It is a scene often repeated in Zimbabwe these days -- parents burying their grown children as lives are cut short by an epidemic that is sweeping across the land like an uncontrollable bush fire.
A year ago, official figures indicated that 100 people were dying from AIDS every day in Zimbabwe. That figure has now more than doubled to 220 deaths a day.
The epidemic is making early death a way of life in the Zimbabwean countryside.
"We feel very much disturbed that we find ourselves in this dilemma, because we have not experienced this in the past," said Jeremiah Khabo, a village elder. "We grew up in a community where the young people lived until they got to their old age and there were very, very few deaths."
Early deaths are also becoming more common in Zimbabwe's cities, where those in the burial business can hardly keep up with demand.
"Today we had five funerals. Five (AIDS-related) funerals and if you look at them, most are young people," said funeral director Justin Chingono.
Zimbabwe has the world's second-highest infection rate for HIV -- the virus that leads to AIDS. Zimbabwe trails only neighboring Botswana, and the rate of infection shows no sign of leveling off.
Experts say a combination of economic, social and cultural factors have contributed to the alarming spread of the disease in Zimbabwe, where it is primarily transmitted through sexual intercourse and by infected mothers to their children during pregnancy.
"We have a disaster on our hands," said Dr. Ruth Labode of the country's Ministry of Health.
She said that an estimated 25 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 45 are infected with HIV.
"And that is the same group that is supposed to bear the next generation. But what we are then expecting is to have this young generation disappear, leave orphans or bring in children to the society that are also going to die," Labode said.
While new treatments have helped stem the AIDS death toll in most developed countries, Zimbabwe has few resources to fight the disease. Even basic medication is in short supply.
"You feel quite frustrated, because you're seeing people who you know sooner or later are going to die," said Dr. Bonaparte Nkomo, who specializes in treating sexually transmitted diseases.
"We don't have HIV drugs to treat these people. We are only treating the opportunistic infections," Nkomo said. "The immunity goes down and sooner or later that person will die."
The patients themselves face overwhelming obstacles, as they struggle to cope with a terminal illness while also trying to make ends meet in a depressed economy.
"Here in our country ... there is no job, and the cost of living is high," said AIDS patient Peter Sibanda.
Sibanda can only dream about buying drugs that might prolong his life.
"When you read of the new drugs which are now available, which are unaffordable ... I think that it's going to create a lot of animosity between developing and developed countries," said Linda Ncube, an AIDS counselor. "Something will soon have to be done. They will have to have subsidized drugs here, or something like that."
For now, many AIDS patients are turning to traditional healers, who advocate the use of herbs they say help relieve symptoms associated with AIDS. Some of these healers have packaged these remedies in capsule form and sell them at modest prices.
Against the odds, some battles are being won in Zimbabwe's war against AIDS.
One program has helped change attitudes toward the disease by encouraging families to care for sick loved ones in their homes. Specially trained counselors, called "care givers," visit the families and teach them about the basic health and nutritional needs of those living with AIDS.
"They never believed that you could stay at home with an HIV positive person and maybe eat from the same plate, share utensils," said Sister Isabel Saungweme of the Nyathi Home-Based Care Group. "But with the experience now that the community is getting, they are really changing their attitudes."
The greatest challenge, however, is to create AIDS awareness among the youth. A recent U.N. report on AIDS revealed that three out of five people newly infected with the disease in sub-Saharan Africa are between the ages of 15 and 24.
Although talking about sex has been taboo in Zimbabwe's traditional culture, the schools today are encouraging open discussion and education about AIDS.
Some musicians have also joined the effort, holding AIDS awareness concerts targeting Zimbabwe's youth.
"It's our duty to warn people that this disease will wipe out mankind if we are not careful," said musician Thomas Mapfumo, who has lost three members of his band to AIDS.
Reporter Bob Coen contributed to this report.
Zimbabwe grapples with AIDS epidemic
World Health Organization - Office of HIV/AIDS
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