Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

ZIMBABWE-HEALTH: Breaking The Silence On AIDS

Isabella Matambanadzo

HARARE, Jul 19 1996 (IPS) - It has taken more than a decade of disease and thousands of deaths for Zimbabwe’s politicians to come out of the closet and acknowledge that the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) must be tackled at the highest level.

“A national strategy” to curb AIDS is in the pipeline Didymus Mutasa, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front’s (ZANU-PF) Secretary for Administration, said at a recent meeting of the party’s central committee.

The announcement is a major turnaround for the political leadership, which for more than 10 years, put a lid of silence on the disease.

When AIDS was identified in the early 1980s, the then health minister Sidney Sekeramayi urged the nation not to be perturbed by ‘sensational’ reports, as ‘international’ journalism was blowing things out of proportion and creating unnecessary panic.

To avert public panic, HIV and AIDS became ‘official secrets’, a stance which was partially influenced by the belief that AIDS was the scourge of promiscuous, white homosexuals and intravenous drug users, all of which were ‘officially alien’ to Zimbabwe.

But this strategy propagated a false sense of security and misinformation about AIDS. Many Zimbabweans believed, for instance, that it was not sexually transmissible, but due to witchcraft and could be cured.

When by 1985 five cases had been diagnosed, Zimbabweans began to be afraid and some people like Ronnie Mutimusekwa of Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city, who publicly admitted to having the disease, were evicted from their homes.

In 1988, the government deflated official Aids cases from 380 to 119, saying they had made diagnostic mistakes. Although doctors were barred from discussing statistics on AIDS and writing it down as the cause of death on death certificates, many people began to realise that the true extent of disease in the country was being covered up.

According to the National AIDS Co-ordination Programme (NACP), as of September 1995, Zimbabwe had 49,000 recorded cases of full blown AIDS, and 60 percent were in the 20-39 year old age group, the most productive sector.

“It is guestimated that Zimbabwe is the worst (hit) country in the world; we do not know. This has and will continue to have a tremendous impact on development,” warns Yoshiko Zenda, the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) country representative.

AIDS will be the most important public health issue for the next decade in Africa, especially Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, Zenda notes.

Efforts to fling off the shroud of silence have received strong support from the country’s current health minister Dr. Timothy Stamps, who took on the health portfolio in 1990. Stamps said earlier this year that 300 people die every week from AIDS in state-run hospitals alone.

“Ministers have tended to shy away from the issue because it is seen as contaminated. AIDS activity by government is not seen as politically beneficial, since it may offend conservative religious and traditional groups and somehow attracts a stigma,” says Stamps. “There are no votes in talking about AIDS. Only lost votes.”

But Mutasa believes that attitudes are changing at the highest level. “Now there are more incidents of AIDS than before. There is critical concern about this disease and government ministers are not ashamed of AIDS as in the past. People are coming forward.”

Zimbabwe’s second Vice President Joshua Nkomo, broke new ground in April, when he admitted that his son Ernest Thuthani (41) had died of AIDS. “Thousands of young people are dying of this thing, but people hide the truth and usually keep it a secret. It is time relatives reveal the truth,” he said.

The political silence however has not been the only barrier to tackling the disease in this Southern African nation.

Zimbabwe’s strong cultural values forbid open talk about sex to the extent that condom advertisements were pulled off television and radio. Polygamy is allowed and encouraged, and the health ministry’s slogan ‘stick to one partner’ has fallen on deaf ears.

Whatever strategy government fashions to step up the fight against AIDS must be guided by these cultural values and have strong political direction.

“Zimbabwe’s political, cultural resistance to AIDS must end, because while old people are pondering, young people are being infected and dying. HIV is terminal,” says Zenda.

“We must not cover up the issue in hushed tones as if it does not exist. Politicians must talk about condoms, make them available. We need politicians to carry out a strong anti-AIDS campaign, not just government leaders, but community and church leaders,” says the UNFPA country representative, urging politicians to follow the example of their Ugandan counterparts.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and other politicians in that country used every public platform to promote the use of condoms and other anti-AIDS messages.

This frankness is paying off as recent research shows that the infection rate has levelled off in what was for years one of the countries in Africa worst affected by AIDS. In 1995, according to official figures, 1.8 million people or 10 percent of Uganda’s 18 million people were infected with the AIDS virus, and some 46,120 people were suffering from full-blown AIDS.

One AIDS activist, who declined to be named, says the same leadership from the highest level is also needed in Zimbabwe, if the country is to finally tackle the spread of the disease.

“President (Robert) Mugabe must channel all his energy to AIDS. We need prominent, respected and well known leaders to stand up on this.”

AIDS activist Iain Kay agrees: “Politics has a tremendous influence on people’s lives. If something is not politically accepted, acknowledged and supported, then it is not followed.”

 
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