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Zimbabwe Plagued by AIDS Crisis
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JULY 02, 17:08 ET

Zimbabwe Plagued by AIDS Crisis

Associated Press Writer


BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (AP) Thabani Ndlovu, 24, lies emaciated and barely moving on a ratty mattress in a patch of winter sunlight in his father's backyard, dying of a disease that is ravaging his country.

According to statistics released Tuesday by UNAIDS, Zimbabwe has the second-highest HIV rate in the world, with 33 percent of adults infected with the virus.

With its economy in disarray, HIV infections have exploded. And many of the millions of people already infected are getting sicker and dying far faster because of a severe shortage of food and basic medicines.

``It's devastating,'' said Maria Massunda, chairwoman of the Zimbabwe AIDS Network, an umbrella group for AIDS service organizations.

Between 2,000 and 5,000 Zimbabweans are dying of the disease every week, health workers estimate. As many as 900,000 children have been orphaned in the southern African country of 12.5 million.

In Ndlovu's poor neighborhood in the city of Bulawayo, community health workers know of at least 10 people who died of AIDS in May and 44 others who were horribly sick. But they suspect many more are ailing in secret.

Ndlovu became sick while living in South Africa last year and returned home so his family could care for him.

But his father, Nathaniel, a retired army medic, cannot afford medicine, vitamins or nutritious food for his son. He struggles just to buy a little corn meal every day.

``There is nothing else,'' Nathaniel Ndlovu said as his son struggled to take small sips from a cola bottle.

Though Botswana has the world's highest HIV rate with 39 percent of adults infected, that relatively wealthy country has a stable government, a strong health care system and a deep political commitment to tackle the crisis.

With political violence roiling Zimbabwe over the past two years, its economy has collapsed.

The health care system here, once the envy of other African nations, is in tatters with doctors and nurses joining the country's brain drain and public hospitals running out of common pain relievers and antibiotics.

Meanwhile, food is short as the country suffers a crisis caused by drought and government seizures of white-owned commercial farmland. With little to eat, many infected Zimbabweans are becoming dangerously ill far earlier than they would have otherwise.

``If we had food, people could go a long way just on a good nourishing diet,'' Massunda said.

The hunger crisis has also weakened people not yet infected, making it easier for the virus to take root in their bodies after exposure.

And many are being exposed in the cauldron of risky behavior that followed the country's economic collapse, Massunda said.

Women are bartering sexual favors for food. Millions of unemployed people, frustrated at their poverty, have turned to sex for an escape. Teen-agers unable to afford school fees have dropped out and prowl the streets.

``There is more promiscuity, there is disease, there is everything,'' Massunda said.

Many AIDS professionals, too frightened to let their names be used, accused President Robert Mugabe's government of being too distracted by its farm seizures and its political battles to deal with the crisis.

Zimbabwe did declare a state of emergency for AIDS in May, allowing it to import or manufacture generic versions of essential medicines. However, with the country suffering a hard currency shortage, few AIDS experts believe it could buy even generic drugs.

The government also implemented a 3 percent AIDS income tax on all businesses and individuals in 2000 to raise money to fight the disease.

``There are quite significant efforts being made,'' said Dr. Evaristo Marowa, director of the National AIDS Council, a quasi-governmental organization that manages the money collected from the tax.

Much of that money has gone to newly formed district councils that provide home-based care, give assistance to orphans and run prevention campaigns.

``We are looking at how we can empower the communities themselves to take actions against HIV/AIDS, whether it be care or prevention,'' said Marowa, who argues the UNAIDS statistics are exaggerated.

But many more people will die and become infected before the nation's anti-AIDS efforts bear fruit, he said.

``There are no quick and easy fixes here,'' Marowa said.