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IRIN PlusNews HIV/AIDS News and information service | Southern Africa | ZIMBABWE: HIV-positive health workers form union | Care Treatment, PWAs ASOs | News Items
Monday 19 February 2007
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ZIMBABWE: HIV-positive health workers form union

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


The economic crisis has crippled the healthcare system

HARARE, 16 February (PLUSNEWS) - Working as a medical professional in overburdened, poorly equipped healthcare facilities facing chronic drug shortages, is hard enough. But when you're HIV positive and also have to deal with stigma and discrimination from your colleagues, it can become unbearable.

In response, the Zimbabwe HIV and AIDS Activists Union (ZHAAU), headed by a group of 15 HIV-positive doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, was launched last week in the capital, Harare, to support and lobby for the rights of healthcare workers living with the virus.

ZHAAU has already signed up 400 members, including professionals such as accountants, teachers and engineers, and hopes to tackle the widespread stigmatisation persisting in the workplace.

The interim president of ZHAAU, Bernard Nyathi, said one would think that the health sector, which is at the coalface of the country's AIDS epidemic, would be a better environment to work in because medical professionals should "know better", but this was not the case.

Nyathi, who works as an HIV counsellor at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare, one of the country's largest health facilities, has experienced this firsthand, and told PlusNews how his colleagues began distancing themselves from him when he publicly disclosed his HIV status, with some even refusing to share staff toilets.

"Stigmatisation is most noticeable at hospital canteens, where some workers do not use utensils we use. Some bring their own cups and plates because they don't want to use the ones we use, or do not come to the canteen at all," he said.

In 2006 Nyathi received the Auxilia Chimusoro Award for his work in advocating for access to HIV treatment. Chimusoro was one of the first Zimbabweans to make her HIV-positive status public.

No surveys have been carried out to determine the prevalence of HIV in the health sector, but in a country with one of the world's highest prevalence figures, the impact of AIDS is particularly worrisome, considering the overall shortage of health personnel.

Zimbabwe's health delivery system has virtually collapsed in the last seven years due to lack of foreign exchange to purchase drugs and medical equipment, and a shortage of qualified personnel, who have fled low pay and poor working conditions for greener pastures in other countries.

"These problems make dealing with patients most difficult," said Nyathi.

ZHAAU secretary-general Rebecca Kashiri, an HIV-positive nurse, believes health workers living with HIV have been neglected, and their needs are being overlooked. She called for health workers to be trained in how to treat, identify, or care for people with HIV/AIDS. "Initially, I had a negative attitude towards AIDS patients, but training changed me - it made me accept all patients. I have no fear of patients anymore."

Itai Rusike, director of the Community Working Group of Health (CWGH), a local nongovernmental organisation dealing with health matters in 25 of the country's districts, applauded the formation of the union, saying it would go a long way towards removing stigma. "[The union members] are HIV positive and also in the health sector ... [the union] will definitely help others who are HIV positive because they know how it feels."

Kashiri said, "We want to have a say in issues affecting us. People who are not positive do not know how it feels to be HIV positive."

ZHAAU is to meet with Minister of Health and Child Welfare David Parirenyatwa in the next two weeks, according to Nyathi. The union would urge the minister to address stigma in the workplace, and also discuss how union members could access antiretroviral treatment.

"Right now HIV-positive people are having a hell of a time," he commented.



Recent ZIMBABWE Reports
Ongoing medical strike could cost lives,  31/Jan/07
Costs of ARVs spiral ,  26/Jan/07
Scepticism over govt plan to treble ARV beneficiaries,  11/Jan/07
New law set to bring hope to abused women,  10/Jan/07
Another setback for anti-AIDS treatment,  14/Dec/06
· AIDS Media Center
· The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
· International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
· International HIV/AIDS Alliance

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