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HEALTH: Rural Zimbabwe Fertile Ground for HIV/AIDS

Ignatius Banda

TSHOLOTSHO, Zimbabwe, Jan 31 2008 (IPS) - They left the country in search of jobs to better their lives, but village elders in rural Tsholotsho, say young men who left home to fend for their families are losing their lives at alarming rates to HIV/AIDS related ailments.

Tsholotsho, about 150 kilometres south-east of Bulawayo, is one of many rural outposts in Matebeleland that have seen thousands of young men making the trek to neighbouring South Africa and Botswana in search of jobs.

But this immigration – while helping sustain families back home – has come at a high price, village elders say.

In Zimbabwe, female life expectancy stands at 34 years, while for males it is 37 years, according to U.N. statistics. Zimbabwe has the lowest life expectancy in the world.

“We are witnessing high HIV/AIDS related deaths, with young men returning home on their death beds,” Norman Dube, a retired secondary school headmaster who has settled here, told IPS.

“There is an increase in the number of children being raised by their grandparents,” Dube said, stressing that, “we now have instances where funerals are being postponed as elders say they cannot cope with burial after burial.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and other field experts have noted that migration trends especially in sub-Saharan Africa have provided fertile ground for HIV/AIDS as spouses are separated for long periods of time and there is resistance to the use of prophylactics among rural communities.

“Migrant labourers have disposable income which could lead to multiple partners once they are in South Africa. The men also irregularly use condoms, especially with their wives in Zimbabwe,” a Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) report titled ‘Mobility and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa’ noted.

Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has seen millions flee the country in search of jobs abroad and in neighbouring countries. While the government last year announced a drop in the number of HIV/AIDS statistics, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) together with the WHO said this could be because immigration had made it difficult to adequately trace infection trends.

In 2007, the Zimbabwean health ministry said HIV prevalence had fallen to 15.6 percent from 18.1 percent in 2005 and 24.6 percent in 2003, but these gains are yet to be reflected in rural communities.

James McGee, U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, told journalists in Bulawayo the decline could be the result of mistaken attribution of deaths to natural causes and the inability to identify new diseases amidst such high mortality rates.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change-controlled Bulawayo city council has begun to invite the ire of authorities for reporting that it is running out of burial space because of the high incidence of HIV/AIDS related deaths.

Maria Guyu, an official with a faith-based NGO working in rural Tsholotsho said the continued immigration of young men and women was worsening the spread of HIV/AIDS. Rural communities were especially bearing the brunt of the problem as they also lacked critical resources to deal with the crisis, Guyu said.

“There are no drugs and anti-retrovirals are unheard of here,” Guyu stressed. “There are also no medical personnel as young nurses and doctors do not want to work in rural areas. We rely on missionary doctors but this is not enough. Patients need food, but though we have seen enough rains, villagers are starving.”

Health workers here say that there is an ever present reluctance among partners that condoms cannot be used by couples who – despite being separated for long periods – feel the introduction of condoms implies one of them has been unfaithful.

“It is frustrating because while everyone seems to know young people – especially who leave the country – have sexual relations as seen by the growing number of deaths to HIV/AIDS, there is resistance to the use of condoms,” a nurse working in Tsholotsho told IPS.

“What can we do? We try our best but the greatest challenge has always been trying to convince people to change their sexual habits,” the nurse said, asking that her name not be used for fear that she may lose her job. “The immigration of the young people has only made it worse,” she said.

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