Zimbabwe: Clinics close down as economic crisis deepens

GWERU, 30 April 2007 (IRIN) - After more than 50 years of serving the community, Rockford Clinic in Gweru, in Zimbabwe's central province of Midlands, shut down two months ago when the last trained nurse quit - a symptom of the wider crisis facing rural health services.

"Many people, including a substantial number of people who now hold high positions in government, were born in and treated at Rockford Clinic, but the [health] ministry had to close it down after it went for a long time with only one qualified nurse and assistants picked from the nearby villages," said Amos Magenga, 65, who lived close to the clinic, about 90km southeast of Gweru.

The operational woes faced by the clinic are all too familiar in Zimbabwe: a shortage of nursing staff and drugs, dilapidated buildings and equipment, and even clean water in short supply - the inevitable result of a record inflation rate of 2,200 percent, and a crippling shortage of foreign exchange.

"These days it's virtually useless to seek help from these health centres, they can't even provide painkillers that one can easily obtain over the counter in a shop," Topona Mangwende, 60, told IRIN.

"Health delivery inevitably suffers when the economy deteriorates to the extent that we are seeing in this country," said Innocent Makwiramiti, an economist and past chief executive of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce. "The government is so preoccupied with finding solutions to the economic meltdown that social services like health are now almost forgotten."

According to the United Nations Population Fund, "Women and children continue to be particularly at risk as the situation continues to worsen. Maternal and neonatal mortality has spiked in recent years as access to basic health services and critical obstetric care has declined."

Rural communities are hardest hit because they are the least developed and poorest regions of the country, Makwiramiti said.

A consequence of the crisis is that traditional medicine is enjoying a resurgence among Zimbabweans unable to afford orthodox treatment. "Because of the poor state of clinics and hospitals we are being forced to adopt desperate measures to save our lives when we fall sick," said Mangwende.

When his stomach began to "mysteriously" swell a year ago, he turned to a traditional healer who claimed he had been bewitched and needed to have the evil spirits exorcised - a treatment option that failed.

Gordon Chavhunduka, president of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, acknowledged the problem of fake healers, but said members of his association were playing a vital role in solving Zimbabwe's medical crisis. Around 80 percent of Zimbabweans are believed to use traditional medicine.

"More and more people in both rural and urban areas are turning to traditional healers because they cannot get much help from hospitals and clinics," Chavhunduka told IRIN. "We hold regular meetings and workshops with the people to educate them on the advantages of using traditional medicine, and what also makes us popular is that we are more affordable."

The country's political and economic crises, and one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection, has seen Zimbabwe tumble to a ranking of 151 out of 177 countries in the United Nation's Development Programme Human Development Index.